Humanising safety

Humanising safety

Our columnist highlights how any approach to safety can be humanised, with some practical examples from an annual maintenance shutdown at a Finnish plant.

Having arrived in Finland for the start of the annual maintenance shutdown, and to support the commissioning of a plant that had been under construction for the past year and a half, I knew that the challenges would be tough at times. I felt, however, that we could overcome any hurdles faced during those five weeks, as we had done in the past. 

The time spent in Finland to support our teams on this large project was no easy task, considering the number of high-risk activities, work undertaken in congested areas, and the many contractors and sub-contractors on site. 

Although this sounds like any other large project involving civils, mechanical erection, commissioning, and start up, the main differences were the weather conditions and how we connected with those working onsite. 

On arrival from Vienna where summer conditions were still prevailing, a chill was in the air. Thinner overall jackets were suitable at first, but within a week or so the weather started turning. With the mill being located on the banks of a lake, we soon moved from normal jackets to thicker winter coats. 

Within weeks, the first snow began to fall, and I started wearing a t-shirt, long-sleeve industrial-type shirt, winter jacket, and gloves. Coffee breaks became more frequent and soup was chosen for lunches – not necessarily to warm the insides, but to wrap one’s hands around the warm coffee mug or soup bowl and sit in a warm place for five or 10 minutes. Seeing the sun became a rarity … South Africans are used to frequent sunny days, but this was not the case in Finland. 

The weather was a challenge but not the only one that we would face; the bigger challenge was completing the shutdown period with the focus of sending everybody – employees and contractors – home safely every day without any serious injuries. 

Finding the balance 

I have been in the risk and safety field for the past 35 years – 17 of them in South Africa and the past 18 based in Europe – travelling to sites all around the world. Like many people employed in risk and safety, I have spent most of those years practising traditional safety, which is mainly based on physical controls, legal compliance, and using tools like the hierarchy of control, toolbox talks, hazard hunts, and risk assessments. Unfortunately, these are “telling” approaches – even more so when it comes to managing contractors working on sites. 

It is not uncommon for leaders as well as risk and safety team members to focus on the controls and physical aspects. This is what they have been taught at universities, colleges, and other training institutions. There is nothing wrong with managing the controls, and there is definitely a need to do so, but there needs to be a balance between the focus on controls and the humanising approach. 

For years, we as leaders have been taught the quote by Peter Drucker: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Sadly, the opposing side to this is missed – understanding that there are things that can’t be measured but are just as, or even more, important. For example, how much do you rate your relationship with your partner? This certainly cannot be measured, but it is an important element of one’s personal life. 

The organisation that I work for has moved its focus from traditional safety to one of Social Psychology of Risk, an approach where the word “social” is central to what we understand and how we approach risk and safety. Building relationships with people – whether they are your own employees or contractors – is what makes the difference. We need to connect with each other, work together, and achieve various milestones together. Relationships like these cannot be measured, just like culture cannot be measured. 

Philosopher Dr Martin Buber spoke about the I-Thou and the I-It, which relates to the relationship with others and the focus on controls. We will always, as leaders, have to have a focus on the management controls, but it is important to ensure that we move into the relationships area at times and make connections with others. This approach is a whole subject on its own, and definitely not possible to explain in this article. I will, however, share the differences that we experienced during the shutdown in Finland. 

In the traditional approach to risk and safety, teams continuously tell contractors what to do, what they are doing wrong, how they should act, how they should do the job, and what tools to use. This is based on a telling approach, which does not contribute to the development of teams or good relationships where everyone works together towards a common goal. 

Contractor companies work on many different sites for different companies, all having different approaches to risk and safety, as well as different standards, rules, and procedures. This often causes confusion for a contractor company’s employees. Therefore, it is key to ensure that there is sufficient learning and understanding of what is required during the work onsite. 

Putting this to the test 

During the shutdown in Finland, we tested the fundamentals of Social Psychology of Risk in our interactions with the contractors over our five weeks on site. Walking around the working areas where they were conducting their activities, we as the risk and safety team engaged with the contractors in a positive manner, having open discussions with them, ensuring alignment, and contributing to continuous learning. 

When observing issues of concern, we shifted away from the traditional approach of pointing out our disapproval and instructing them to conduct the work in a safe manner. Instead, we had a discussion and engaged with them, sharing our concerns while listening to their stories and suspending our own agenda. This made it possible for us to understand where they were coming from, and helped the team to agree on the preferred way of doing a task. 

When observing them forgetting to adhere to certain requirements, we would respectfully remind them of those requirements. At times there were moments of frustration, having to engage with certain individuals more than once to address issues of concern. It was then that I had to remind myself of the importance of listening and not only telling – of suspending my agenda and, in turn, getting agreement and a commitment to meet the requirements. 

The compliance level improved considerably because they regarded us as support, not a team of safety persons who they had to fear. Of course, there were times when we had serious discussions with people who were conducting work in a way that had the potential to cause serious injuries, but this was understood by all involved. 

There were also times when disciplinary action was taken, but only once a clear understanding of the details leading up to the situation had been established. One contractor company with whom we had numerous issues of concern eventually came on board and contractors even ended up frequently bringing me a good Italian espresso. We had built a relationship of mutual respect and understanding; there were times of friendliness, times of tough discussions and frustration creeping in, but always respect and a goal of working together. 

We focused our attention on strengthening the Groupspace elements where teams worked together and, for example, reminded each other to hook up when working at heights, or to stay out of the drop zone when a lift was taking place. 

For me, this was worlds apart from the traditional safety approach, where members of the risk and safety team are feared as the enemy, rather than being seen as part of the team. I recall a project from around 2007, where the contractor company employed one person to stand close to the project site entrance to warn others when the risk and safety person was approaching. The spinoff of this approach was that either all activities stopped, or everyone would closely follow the rules while the risk and safety person was on site, only to resume unsafe activities when they left the site. 

In one of my books, I wrote about a safety person who chased a contractor along a pipe bridge to tell him what he was doing wrong and how he was working unsafely. This is just one example of the fear that traditional safety puts in people – be it contractors or employees. 

These examples are the result of no trust, no team effort, a focus on controls, and a lack of engagement with the work teams: a far cry from what we experience when practising the fundamentals of Social Psychology of Risk. I can only hope that risk and safety practitioners in all industries find the balance between workplace controls and the psychological and cultural elements in their risk and safety focus, and promote engagement as a key tool. In this way they can humanise their approach, place individuals at the centre of what they do, and find the I-Thou in their style.  

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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  1. Hi Brian

    Good reading and your approach fully supported.

    My personal philosophy has always been that we as leaders should work with our employees and contractors to find solutions and figure out best practice on the job site.
    If we are not part of a collective solution, we are part of the problem.

    Best wishes


  2. Brian, very insightful article and thank you for taking the time to share this critical learning. In the work I am involved with, we find it numerous times: it is about both the systemic (measures, monitoring, procedural, etc guidance) as well as the humanistic approach (understanding, connecting, trust, culture and leadership approach) that delivers business success. Finding coherence, synergy and balance towards a common goal = sustainable and exceptional business performance and success.

    It is, however, the latter that needs the attention! Articles like yours confirms that what we guide leaders on, is the right approach. Shifting leadership one leader at a time, those that are willing to be the change: connecting with people in an open and transparent way developing and strengthening trust during every engagement.

    Best wishes, Ronel

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