A bright future awaits?

A bright future awaits?

Dr Andrew Sharman explored the evolving role of the occupational safety and health (OSH) professional, the global changes that affect it and the ways to revitalise your approach. Now it’s time to look to the future.

In this final article, I examine how, as an OSH professional, you can envision success and then set out a clear path for engaging and empowering people and creating positive, sustainable change in your organisation.

I have a dream …

For many organisations, progress in workplace safety typically follows a bad accident, a worrying trendline on a graph or a visit from the inspector. But we must move beyond this reactive safety approach, where the focus is on reducing accidents, saving insurance premiums and setting annual targets for percentage-point reductions in accident statistics.

For sustainable change to occur, we need to look to the future, envision what success looks like and then engineer the route to reach it. Without vision, encouraging people to work together in the same direction – especially on safety – will be difficult, if not downright impossible.

Before we dismiss the idea of the safety practitioner as a visionary, let’s take a moment to reconsider. Great workplace safety is about stripping things back. If we keep peeling back the layers of the organisation, we find that safety is just another business imperative. Just another business activity that needs to be done efficiently and effectively. Just like anything else. (Now hold on a moment, I’m not trying to provoke responses of “hang on, it’s all about the people …” but rather encourage you to see that safety isn’t The Most important Thing but instead just part of how organisations work.)

If we consider safety in this way, why should our approach to safety be different to anything else we do in the business? A brightly visioned approach is crucial to organisational success. Think of some of the most successful companies in the world – Apple, Pepsi, Google, Nike, Mercedes-Benz: none of them arrived at where they are today by chance, through compliance, through simply reducing costs or just improving performance. Each one of these organisations, and many more that you can think of, reached their market leadership positions because someone had a vision of what they wanted to achieve.

No matter where we look, whether in the commercial world and Steve Jobs of Apple and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, or the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr or others like Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Each is just one person. Yet, each one had a vision that not only drove success, but could be understood by people, who followed these leaders on their journeys.

Authors Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson wrote that visionary leaders are: “the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. They work with the power of intentionality and alignment with a higher purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.”

McLaughlin and Davidson got it right and, if we deconstruct their thinking, we begin to see the game plan.

Change the game

As a profession, safety has suffered a crisis of credibility in recent years. The media around the globe has plagued those who strive to make the world safer for everyone. Stories abound of local authorities banning flowers in hanging baskets, of schools demanding that children wear safety goggles to play conkers, of officials saying that circus trapeze artists must wear hard hats.

These well-meaning people have created such a negative stigma around their work that – despite rebuttals from professional bodies such as IOSH, the International Institute of Risk & Safety Management, the American Society of Safety Engineers, the Safety Institute of Australia, Saiosh, the British Safety Council, and many other international bodies – the role of the safety professional is usually met with derision and muffled laughter.

It’s not surprising. Traditionally, OSH practitioners have rarely had really good news to share; instead they simply share data on the number of accidents that have occurred, or the people hurt at work or made sick by what they do.

The time has come to change the game. We must focus on the horizon – and write the future of safety.

Safety practitioners are the ones who hold the responsibility for how others see them and must become change agents, thought leaders and value-contributors for the organisation. How? We can, by seeing the bigger picture and developing agility, decisiveness and strategic thinking, we introduce new perspectives. We can demonstrate the ability to swiftly shift gears from grassroots to a high level, adjusting language and content to localised needs and context while being sensitive to the cultural diversities in the ever-expanding world of work.

The practitioner of the future will have the intellectual rigour to understand what’s needed, translate vision and values into practical systems and common language, and lead a diverse range of projects that engage and influence a broad range of stakeholders through direct and indirect means to deliver added value for the business.

Rather than orienting themselves around workplace problems, safety leaders will be focused on a higher purpose: facilitating organisational understanding of the safety issues it faces, and the likely impact of these upon both safety and financial performance; generating innovative solutions to lead sustainable change; and challenging the established, accepted norms, customs and practices when it comes to safety.

As a true leader, the safety practitioner should be an enabler of change, not a brake that slows progress. The thoughtful practitioner is a discoverer of opportunity and developer of a range of useful, cost-effective solutions to de-risk business initiatives, rather than curtail them on health and safety grounds.

Convergence – going with the flow

We can acknowledge that at times the safety practitioner’s agenda will naturally differ from those around him, but when common ground can be identified, it provides a solid foundation from which to build trust, collaboration and progress. Look to the corporate values to find direction on where the shared sense of purpose or convergence can be found.

In theory and, we hope, in practice for many great organisations, the values will be well articulated and understood by everyone, and although there’s room for personal interpretation, there should be sufficient information to grasp and use as a starting point for building a convergent agenda. Such convergence or flow – where all parties seek common ground and agreement – may be hard to find, but look deep enough and you’ll find the golden thread.

This isn’t about simply trying to layer the safety agenda over other departments, functions or stakeholders, but finding ways of tying them all together. Think of the way streams and tributaries converge into the larger river, creek or canal. Each does so using its own unique course, making its way past obstacles in its path, before adding its volume and value to the main channel.

Hallmarked by a shared desire for continuous improvement across safety, production and process (and other disciplines), convergent leaders share lessons openly but are also considerately mindful of not exposing the organisation and damaging its reputation.

Opportunities for development are identified and grasped while concurrently risks are assessed, mitigated and controlled. In this way, efforts in safety become cumulative, rather than isolated, and the foundations for a solution-oriented culture are laid squarely in place.  The creation of convergent agendas will build resilience into the organisational processes and help retain the continuous integrity of the working environment.

Adjust the mindset

Many great organisations will already have fostered a step change in attitude toward safety, moving the remit of the safety practitioner away from a person whose job it is to cover all the weaknesses, to a guiding role – acting more like a GPS or satellite navigation system to help the business achieve its aims. This is a crucial first step, for as long as the organisation views the practitioner as the person who does safety, progression will be difficult to achieve.

Safety shouldn’t be the domain of one person, a team or a corporate department. We’re all responsible for safety, so why don’t we share the accountability?

Consider how safety is perceived currently in your organisation. Is it a vibrant subject, considered as an exciting part of the work activity? Do people strive to join the OSH department or get involved in safety-related projects?

Engage others

Safety isn’t something you can “do” to people. It’s something that can only be achieved with and through people. The most effective way to change the game and help refocus minds is by engaging others in the actual management of safety. Not just the performing of risk assessments, or accident investigations, but actually creating ideas; building activities and campaigns; designing symbols, logos and brands; shaping the strategy; working out performance indicators and so on.

Involving workers is a major factor that directly influences the success of cultural change programmes in workplace OSH and risk management. Through participation employees can more fully understand the rationale for change and, crucially, feel connected to it, as part of the team guiding the business forward. Participation and deep involvement like this breeds ownership. The more people we can involve in changing the game, the more mindsets we positively influence, the more awareness and understanding we raise, and, in turn increase the likelihood of success. Remember, it’s all about behaviour. Changing cultures through building relationships requires effective field time: talking, walking, sharing, involving, engaging, modelling. It’s time to get out there!

The rise and fall of the safety department

I recall attending a safety conference where Judith Hackitt, former Chair of the British workplace regulator the Health & Safety Executive, declared that the main aim of the modern safety practitioner is to do himself out of a job. The sharp intake of breath from many in the room was audible. Many attendees wondered if she had gone crazy. Without the safety officer in role, wouldn’t workplace health and safety issues just get ignored by organisational management? Surely the practitioner is needed, along with his safety net?

But, in fact, Hackitt was suggesting that the time had come for a step change in how we “do” safety and manage risks at work. A time for changing the way we protect humans from themselves and safeguard organisations from injury and mishap. Making themselves redundant must be the most noble aim a safety practitioner could possibly have, right? To have contributed so completely to the world that accidents and injuries no longer occur.

But if we think carefully about Hackitt’s message, we can take our cue from her as to the recipe for success. Time and time again, the regulator of one of the safest countries in the world points to just one key ingredient: engagement. This may appear counterintuitive. First, we’re told that we must do ourselves out of our jobs, and then we’re told that we need to engage people. Aren’t these actions at odds with each other? Indeed not, they fit together on a path to maturity and, in fact, when we consider any of the safety culture models referred to in my books, we can see them clearly reflected.

But how would OSH practitioners know when their roles are surplus to requirement? When everyone is so fully engaged that the responsibility for safety has become shared: no longer as a burden to business – but shared as a value, a common habit, a privilege to be proud of. This is the end game. This, the most valiant aim of all, is what we, as practitioners or as business leaders, must strive for: the deconstruction and devolution of the safety department.

Just some of the drivers that will determine the profession’s future are: globalisation, internationalised supply chains, shifting government agendas, relationships with regulators, and the growing interest of stakeholders and broader society in risk and assurance.

As we move forward, the acid test will be about clarifying the measurable value that safety contributes to support the long-term financial health and prosperity of the organisation. To do this effectively, we need to turn our attention away from fighting fires and calming compliance fears to building bottom-line business value.

Releasing energy, enabling change

Over the last decade forward-thinking companies have been using safety as either a stepping stone to career development – especially in graduate programmes – or to prepare for senior leadership positions. It’s increasingly recognised that most of the work that safety practitioners do is about solid general management skills.  These can be distilled to five key attributes that will underpin the success of safety leadership – whether delivered by an OSH practitioner or a business leader – in the context of organisational safety, health, well-being and beyond.

Visionary leadership – the ability not just to see the future, but to be able to articulate it in a persuasive manner that inspires action.

The courage and confidence to change the game through constructive challenge, the use of clear and relevant language, and useful innovation.

Identifying a shared sense of purpose and bringing agendas together with convergence towards the vision.

Helping people to adjust their mindsets, through creating meaningful symbolism that allows people to feel part of the bigger picture.

Engaging others in the broader scope of safety, involving people, generating action.

When the OSH practitioner gets these five attributes just right, they become not just good managers or leaders, but they release energy and enable positive change for the organisation, in safety and right across the business.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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