Andrew tells all

Andrew tells all

Professor Andrew Sharman replies to some tough and important questions from Neels Nortjé, CEO of Saiosh.

The questions have been segmented into the various categories that are often discussed within this column.

Changing perspectives
Q: The Covid-19 pandemic has shed light on our reliance on essential workers in the healthcare, food and beverage and transportation sectors. How do you think the experiences of these workers during the pandemic will influence how organisations approach safety culture and safety management in the years ahead?

A: Essential workers have held things together for us right around the world, and in recognising their efforts we’ve had a wonderful insight into the human resource side of the pandemic – the hard work, endless shift patterns and constancy of being “on call” – and seeing this helps us realise that we are all only human. It’s been a humbling experience for leaders around the globe, as they too have had to become more human, revealing their own vulnerabilities and personal challenges when working in isolation, from the kitchen table, with kids and pets running around!

The experiences of essential workers are already shaping organisational policy, with many organisations creating remote and flexible working opportunities, opening up new forms of communication channels, and leaders listening more intently to the aspirations, needs and desires of their team. Covid has become a remarkable opportunity for “levelling the playing field” and allowing leaders and their organisations to consider how they wish to create a brave new world, post-pandemic.

Q: Many organisations are cutting costs during the economic slowdown caused by Covid-19. Cost-cutting is hitting every department, including occupational health and safety (OH&S), even as organisations acknowledge that their ability to protect health is critical for their long-term survival. How can OH&S professionals convince leaders that now is the time for investments in health and safety and not cost-cutting?

A: Economic challenges are affecting most sectors right now, so it’s time for OSH professionals to step up and demonstrate that they have real and tangible value to offer the business. It’s time to extend top-table discussions from Covid to the wider occupational health risks organisations are facing, and to broaden our field of vision to reincorporate those very real safety risks that were on our agendas pre-pandemic.

The International Labour Organization reports that poor workplace safety and health costs around 4% of the global gross domestic product, while OSHA advises that the 23 000 on-the-job injuries each year add up to US$250 billion annually. We might expect these numbers to rise with the pandemic due to reduced workforce, increased pressure to perform and the prevailing fear for the future.

But there’s some good news too: the National Safety Council suggests that return-on-investment on OSH is between four and six dollars for every dollar spent. OSH practitioners could consider the real cost of their current safety performance and work out how much more in sales the organisation would need in order to cover this cost. When senior executives understand that safety is eating into their margins, they’re certain to be interested in how to change that picture.

Measuring success
Q: One of the reasons leaders often resist shifting from lagging indicators is that they’re generally easier to measure and simpler to understand. What performance (leading) indicators would you recommend organisations start with to encourage a shift away from measuring negatives toward measuring positives in safety?

A: There’s no doubt that lagging indicators are easy to measure – perhaps because what they measure is easier to see: a broken arm, a chemical burn, a twisted ankle … If we want to really drive a step-change in safety culture and performance, though, we’ll need to focus on the inputs to creating safety, and only leading indicators will help us measure these inputs.

Leading indicators will be different for each organisation and their cultural maturity, and need to be centred around what the organisation wants to see more of. For example, an organisation may want to see more meetings started with a safety moment, more leadership safety walks or more employees leading safety meetings. So, consider the behaviours you want to see more of and create good leading indicators (that are proactive, preventive and predictive) for these specific behaviours or activities.

Q: What practical things can H&S professionals do to help encourage a shift from a fear-based, discipline-driven compliance culture to a commitment-based, engaging approach to culture?

A: As OSH practitioners we should be mindful of our own contributions towards the development of compliance cultures in organisations. The earlier styles of the profession were dominated by audits, inspections, checklists and sanctions. In recent years, however, there’s been a discernible shift towards putting people back at the heart of health and safety, and this is a good thing! OSH practitioners would do well to “humanise” their approach: increasing their interest in how work gets done, discussing safety risks and ideas with workers, and allowing the evolution to take hold, focus on engaging, encouraging, enabling and empowering workers around the broader OSH agenda.

Behaviour change
Q: We’re seeing a lot of questionable, arguably unsafe, behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems that the attitudes underlying that behaviour may be heavily influenced by misinformation and false narratives. How can leaders counteract these narratives to encourage people to practise safe behaviours (i.e. wearing a mask)?

A: Without a doubt one of the biggest risks from the pandemic has been the accompanying “infodemic” that has been running in parallel. Over many months we’ve suffered a deluge of data and information that leaders have been trying to navigate, and it’s not been easy. As a result, directions and guidance seem to have twisted and turned, and it’s been hard for people to know just what they should be doing. Now we’re several months in and we have clarity on how to mitigate the risks, leaders could focus on role-modelling and reinforcing a small number of simple behaviours to set the tone from the top and provide the reassurance we all need.

Mental wellness
Q: We’re seeing many individuals struggling to cope with concerns triggered by the pandemic, including job insecurity, health fears, social isolation and economic uncertainty, to name a few. What should leaders be doing now to ensure such distractions do not lead to a rise in workplace injuries or ill health?

A: There’s no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted everyone, and recent research by the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) reveals that up to 75% of people are feeling more stressed right now.

Now is the time for developing risk literacy in the workforce, and redoubling our commitments to be our “brother’s keeper” – essentially, everyone looking out for each other. Additionally, leaders should focus on being “authentically curious”, posing meaningful questions about safety and health to their teams, frequently, in order to help workers keep their minds on the risks and the task at hand. Ensuring real clarity of communications is key – not just in OSH, but with leaders sharing the bigger organisational picture and outlook with transparency.

Q: Humans are social animals. How should leaders balance the need for social distancing with our innate instinct to socially interact in a way that strengthens safety culture and wellness?

A: Right – we thrive on being part of a tribe! Many organisations are now working out how to gather smaller groups of people together while respecting physical-distance requirements, often using the tenets of Nudge Theory with, for example, alternate seats removed from around tables, or floor markings to remind people.

Others are getting creative online, with end-of-week catch-ups, or virtual coffee-time chats (I run a weekly session on Zoom where people from my LinkedIn network come together informally to talk safety and that’s an amazingly productive 45 minutes). What’s key is ensuring that people have the opportunity to talk openly and candidly, sharing how they feel and what’s on their mind. I’d suggest you ramp up the opportunities for getting together and sharing dialogue, and ask people what works for them and what ideas they have for interaction – this, in itself, is a great way to engage and involve your teams and help them feel valued and part of the tribe.

Q: It is said that to encourage a new approach to safety culture one has to start asking better questions. Can you offer any suggestions on questions that could help leaders engage workers more effectively, beyond the standard “do you have any safety concerns” question?

A: We know that great leaders are great listeners, but in order to listen well, you need to ask great questions first! You could ask: “What’s the thing most likely to cause serious harm around here?” or “If you could do one thing to improve safety, what would you do?” or, at the end of a shift: “What did we do that kept people safe here today?”

We recently developed the ‘creating safety conversations’ card deck to help leaders create meaningful discussions on workplace health and safety. It contains 50 cards covering 10 themes of safety culture and more than 160 carefully designed questions. People are telling us they love using them for safety walks, toolbox talks and team meetings – they can be used on virtual online meetings too!

Technology and data
Q: The resources available to small businesses to make significant gains in health and safety aren’t the same as with large organisations. Many small companies do not have dedicated OH&S staff, and living on razor-thin margins often means technology is too expensive. What options are available to small businesses to advance safety culture considering the constraints many of them face?

A: In a new book co-authored by 142 of the world’s leading thinkers on OSH – including Dekker, Hofstede, Hollnagel, Schein, Conklin, Cooper, Gantt, Geller, Goldsmith, Slovic and many more – there’s a very persuasive argument that the power of marginal gains and incremental progress is a more sustainable way to make significant gains in OSH.

The book, called One Percent Safer, is a veritable compendium of practical wisdom which can be used by leaders at all levels in all organisations, and, according to the “godfather of organisational culture”, Dr Edgar Schein, it is “brimming with powerful and useful ideas presented in a novel and very readable format.”

All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the One Percent Safer Foundation, a charitable trust set up to help OSH practitioners made vulnerable by the pandemic, to provide support to small businesses who perhaps can’t afford dedicated OSH staff. Find out more at

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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