Most Health and Safety professionals will work in organisations that have a reasonable Health and Safety record; after all, the organisation has invested by employing someone to look after this important area. In all probability though, there are still incidents that ought never to have happened. There will also be practices that lead to long-term issues.
Rules and regulations
Some managers try to reduce the complexity of Health and Safety management to a series of rules and tick-boxes; this makes it easier to understand and makes the success criteria simple. Ticking boxes can drive some progress. But success is not guaranteed just because we obey the rules and tick the boxes. That is why we still get a persistent rump of incidents: something else is obviously happening here.
It is tempting is to blame the people who have been injured. After all we have a good system, lots of policies, training and protective equipment. So, obviously, they were silly, didn’t pay attention, didn’t obey the rules, didn’t follow the procedure or did something else wrong. This may, in any individual case, be true. Maybe the injured person, or someone else nearby, wasn’t paying attention or failed to follow the rules.
But why does this happen again and again? Unless the recruitment process ensures that we repeatedly employ fools, the root cause of the problem cannot be that people are silly.
Leaders Health and Safety behaviour
It is true that many incidents are caused by lack of attention, either directly because people are sloppy about what they are doing or because they do things that cause others to have accidents. These same people would probably not be sloppy about the quality of the product they manufacture, be rude to customers or overspend their allocated budget. So why are these same people lacking attention where their own safety is concerned?
Firstly, it is remarkable how people really do subscribe to the “it won’t happen to me” fallacy. Part of the reason that they don’t pay appropriate attention is that they genuinely believe that they and the people around them won’t be affected if they cut a corner in the procedure, or just leave that trip hazard there for just a moment.
But secondly, and far more importantly, our staff will care about what their leaders and managers care about. They don’t overspend because managers are likely to take some action about that. They won’t be overtly rude to the customers because managers will do something about that. But what do managers do about minor Health and Safety issues?
Leaders need to care
The truth is that leaders and managers need to care. They need to demonstrate that care by what they do. In other words, leadership behaviour will demonstrate the importance that leaders give to Health and Safety. Managers Health and Safety walk-rounds should not be cancelled or postponed because something “more important” came along. That communicates your belief that other stuff is more important. We must not delay our own training, because it demonstrates that others could, and maybe should, do the same. We should not relegate Health and Safety to an annual report at the board, when we discuss finance, quality and customer service at every board meeting. As we ascribe importance to Health and Safety, so our staff will ascribe a similar level of importance. They will believe that management will take action.
When leaders and managers believe that Health and Safety is important and behave in a way that demonstrates that belief, this will drive a culture in the organisation that will affect the behaviour of staff. With this culture in place staff will behave as though health and safety is important, and they will take more care, be less sloppy and refrain from cutting corners.
So having a reasonable Health and Safety system in place is a great start. But to be excellent we must concentrate on behaviours. Like charity, this starts at home. As leaders and managers, we must concentrate on our own behaviour and what this communicates. Don’t confuse your staff by behaving for most of the time as though Health and Safety doesn’t matter and suddenly change your messages when someone is hurt. Be consistent as a leader and your staff will follow your lead.
Success in Health and Safety is probably more about behaviour and culture than rules and regulations. So we should stop behaving as though we just want to tick the boxes and pass the inspections. We should start showing that we actually care about the wellbeing of our staff.