Stirring the OSH embers

Stirring the OSH embers

In this article we’ll explore how the Monk, Mercenary, and Missionary styles have evolved, examine the global changes that affect the occupational safety and health (OSH) professional, and reveal how to revitalise your approach and deliver real value to your organisation.

The first part in a trio of articles reflecting the role of the OSH practitioner appeared in issue 3 of 2021. There I suggested that many practitioners operate in the style of the Monk (a dedicated, disciplined technical expert, dogmatically focused on procedures and rules), the Mercenary (a dogmatic protector of the organisation using a command-and-control approach to tell people what to do), or the Missionary (an evangelist striving to convert people to the importance of safety without truly understanding the real business issues).

What went wrong?

There are two principal catalysts for the evolution of safety into Monk, Mercenary or Missionary styles. First, the delegation of “all things safety” to a single person, the safety officer.

Some managers may have benefited from some general management training. Many will have learned their craft through constant immersion in these daily events. But no matter which learning route has been followed, the rub is that the average manager is simply not trained to deal with danger.

Although accidents provide opportunities for learning, they do not occur with the same regularity as other management issues. When they do arise, the manager strives to balance production and safety – keeping the machines running while taking care of the injured party.

Salient lessons from the accident will be observed, where possible, during the return to normal operations. Routine matters of occupational health and safety, together with less severe hazards, may float by like leaves on a river.

In good organisations, the safety officer will be there, ready to catch these safety issues in his net, and resolve them with little fuss, as his contribution to “keeping the machines running”. But this approach does nothing to further managers’ ability to manage safety. The safety officer has become the organisation’s safety net – and, so long as he keeps catching the issues, why bother doing anything differently?

The second reason is the creation of the black art of bureaucracy. The ideology of a structured approach to safety through the sharing of information and open, cohesive working practices and relationships has been frequently obscured beneath layers of bureaucracy: well-meaning safety officers, unsure of expectations, find themselves in a Catch-22 situation, trying to help management, but unaware of the need for – or application of – proportionate risk management.

The officer, trying his best, diligently drafts his policies and procedures to fill the safety file and keep the regulators away. Safety officers have meticulously developed libraries of risk assessments and revised standard operating procedures and, at the same time, alienated management, who see their time spent mired in paperwork that seems irrelevant to the work required and too bureaucratic.

Accordingly, the great risk we run is for organisations to assume that everyone within shares the same understanding of “how the organisation works”, and specifically, “how safety works”. Before long the organisation has developed its own problem-oriented culture towards workplace safety, and negative stigmatisation and isolation have taken hold.

Overlaid across these two challenges are fast-growing perceptions of an increased litigation culture in many developed countries around the globe. This has fostered a fear-based philosophy where the production of such voluminous documentation has become regarded as the only way to provide vital armour-cladding to protect against legal action.

Ironically, this approach furthers the disconnect between safety and reality, and strengthens the belief that safety can only be “done” by experts. This self-protectionism has not gone unnoticed. In a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in May 2005, then UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, warned that the UK had “a wholly disproportionate attitude to the risks we should expect to run as part of normal life”. Disappointingly, it would appear that this “disproportionate attitude” has prevailed in many developed nations and, in some, there are clear signals that it is gathering momentum.

Some practitioners have been granted the moral fortitude and inner strength to accept their isolation and see themselves as a misunderstood technical expert. Others may find it uncomfortable to be so far out on a limb and may find ways to melt back into the team through a different position. Luckily, some – perhaps, sadly, a minority – experience an epiphany as they realise that times have changed, and they must change too …

So, is there a disconnect between what OSH professionals think they should do versus what organisations think they should do? I suspect that there is not just a simple gap, but indeed significant differences between how senior leaders and safety practitioners perceive the management of OSH within their organisations. Why? What caused this detachment?

We’re going through changes

Wouldn’t it be great if we could point to one thing and confidently say: “There, that’s what went wrong”? Of course it would! We could then efficiently fix the problem and forget all about the “safety issue” until next time. But it’s just not as simple as that. We have arrived at this point in our safety journey because several factors have collided.

  1. The world has changed

Under the influence of shifting economic, social, political and demographic conditions the world of work in which we all operate has changed and will continue to do so. Corporate social responsibility, new technologies, broken-down borders and transient workers, international trade and intra-regional economic partnerships all bring new challenges that require new skills as globalisation picks up the pace. Unfamiliar legal landscapes are discovered as organisations expand across the globe, presenting us with regulatory and litigious risks that may not resemble those found in home countries.

  1. The work we do has changed

In many developed nations, the shift from industrial to service industries is palpable. As we begin the new “knowledge economy revolution” we must realise that the work we do today, and where we do it, is radically different from what it was in the past. We continue to outsource many activities as we return to focusing on our core product or service provision.

As a result, supply chains become elongated and costs driven down as contracts are awarded to the lowest bidders, sometimes on our doorsteps, but more likely situated in developing nations. Disasters like the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013, which killed over 1 100 people and injured more than 2 500, have raised the bar with regard to human rights and social responsibility, reminding us of our moralistic duties and forever affecting the matching of task and worker.

  1. The way we work has changed

The advent of the “executive academic” graduating from renowned business schools such as Harvard, Kellogg, Duke, Wharton and the London Business School has had a profound impact on the way we work.

New models, principles and philosophies for business are enlightening boardrooms and literally turning business strategy on its head. As the knowledge economy grows, organisations are faced with a myriad consultants offering to find and fix problems they never knew they had – all in the name of business improvement. Such business changes render some habits and hardware obsolete while creating valuable opportunities for new ways of working and living to emerge.

  1. The way we do safety has not changed

Risks today are no longer purely physical, related to traditional causes like industrial machinery. Yet, the way in which we do our work is not really changing. Although there may be a tangible shift in the language we use to describe our work – for example from “compliance” to “risk management”, or from “reporting” to “governance” – we continue to operate with our traditional methods in a safety silo, distinct and detached from the rest of the organisation.

With organisational cultures effectively promoting the evolution of Monks, Mercenaries and Missionaries we become stuck on a slowly turning wheel, unable or ignorant how to make it stop.

If you keep doing what you’re doing …

These are great catalysts for reviewing how we think about, present and “do” safety. But it seems common that when organisations find themselves on a performance plateau – having successively reduced workplace accidents through the successive introduction of physical measures such as machinery guarding, administrative controls like training and supervision, and then attempts at influencing behavioural change through observation-based programmes – they find it too easy to revert to the old models of “doing safety”.

But what got us here in the past won’t get us where we want to be in the future. As Henry Ford said: “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you got.”

Over the last 30 years the profession has experienced profound evolution, from the redefinition of roles and responsibilities to a dramatically changing regulatory landscape. The approach of the safety practitioner must also continue to evolve as organisations and expectations change around us. The future will be for those who not only keep pace with change but can manage to stay ahead of the curve.

To break through the glass ceiling and truly drive added value from safety back into the business we need a step-change in our approach, from being reactive to being responsive. This means we need to:

  • Stop reacting to workplace hazards and start responding to the output of our risk management programmes.
  • Stop reacting to accidents and start responsively learning from history to identify themes, trends and opportunities.
  • Stop benefiting from safety “by chance” and start planning to experience safety by choice.

Stop doing safety activities based on the competency and availability of limited safety resources and start aligning our safety strategies with the organisation’s vision, purpose and needs.

Stop relying on safety leadership based on availability of the role models; CEOs could begin their speeches by addressing safety and continue by building capable leadership based on being fit and ready for future safety and workplace risk challenges.

There is no room for the Monk, the Mercenary or the Missionary in the Safe New World. The role of the safety officer has evolved beyond the specialist practitioner remit and into that of a safety leader.

The smart organisations are already there, moving safety to a core value and exploring how systems, leadership, engagement and motivation all influence workplace behaviours.

These organisations are repositioning their people from safety doers to safety leaders and capitalising on the value that a more thoughtful approach brings to the organisation. From more engaged employees and increased well-being to reduced risk, enhanced corporate reputation and better governance, there’s “money left on the table” and it’s only right that we put it back where it belongs.

Revitalising objectives

So, what is the purpose of safety within a business? Is it to assure legal compliance? To reduce accidents? To investigate what went wrong? To carry out audits? To crunch the numbers?

Well, in a sense it is all of these things, some of the time, but, as we move forward, if we truly desire to drive a step-change and obtain the additional worth that we’ve been leaving behind, we must rethink our purpose and start to consider how safety can contribute value. Here are five ways to strip back the approach to safety and bring the bounty back to the boardroom:

Support the business

In order to enable productive change, safety needs to be an energy releaser within the business rather than an energy drain. A crystal-clear understanding of the organisation’s mission, strategy and goals is of paramount importance if safety practitioners are to be able to confidently present themselves as business partners who can support other managers’ achievement of their objectives.

If we can’t show how safety supports and adds value to the business, just like the Monk and the Missionary, our services won’t be used. Keep in mind that any approach to setting OSH policy needs to be evidence-based, relevant, practical and in direct response to the real risks of the workplace.

Lead from the front

On our journey to safety excellence, the safety practitioner must show the way forward and act as the GPS, the satellite navigation system. In times of corporate change, it’s fair to expect that resources may be thin on the ground, so the ability to lead through influence and persuasion is vital to building networks of influencers who can become advocates for safety throughout the business.

Be collaborative

To move away from the silos that the Monk, the Mercenary and the Missionary all created for themselves, safety needs to develop allies and build strategic partnerships across the business, infecting other departments and functions to co-create shared activities, goals and objectives.

Building safety into the way the business works smashes down the silo walls and allows everyone to see how they contribute to the corporate vision. As organisations realise that the “health” in health and safety is vitally important to consider, practitioners need to get up to speed on key health issues and adapt their skill sets.

This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming experts on workplace health, but more likely cultivating more efficient and effective partnerships working with occupational health and hygiene specialists.

Think like everyone else

The time for thinking like a safety officer is over. In the Safe New World, the safety practitioner must be all things to everyone, by operating as a miniature model of the organisation. To discover and enable the hidden added value, we must think and function as the entire business. Yes, the entire business. There is much to learn, but by engaging with peer groups we not only learn how to develop ideas for representing the safety and risk approach, but also have perfect opportunities to join the dots and grow new partnerships.

Get together with the movers and shakers in the other departments and see what makes them tick. When they strip things back, what are the naked factors that bring the results?

Deliver tangible value

“Show me the money!” In the Hollywood blockbuster Jerry McGuire, Tom Cruise’s character epitomised everyone’s favourite love-to-hate-him capitalist. But let’s be clear. Business does business to make a profit. Now, it’s not about turning the Monk into Gordon Gecko, but in order to be aligned, safety must be able to either reduce the cost of doing business or contribute to the bottom line as an income-generating stream.

Traditionally, safety has demonstrated how reducing accidents can effectively save money for the business, but this is always based on hypothetical standardised data or involves a serious round of reactive internal data-trawling and number-crunching.

In th future we need to be much clearer about how the whole range of occupational health, well-being, safety and risk management activities provide a solid return on investment and support the financial health of the business by using cost-benefit analysis to help show the impact of projects, programmes and strategic activities.

Yes, talking about personal injury and money in the same sentence can be a sensitive issue, but unless we do, we’ll never see the true value that safety brings to the table.

Remember that beyond reducing costs related to absenteeism, accidents and disease, OSH measures also support the improvement of corporate image, reputation, position in the labour market and customer satisfaction, as well as reducing employee turnover and increasing productivity.

So, with a clearer sense of purpose, and stronger alignment to the organisation’s vision and goals, where do we go? What are the key attributes of safety leadership as we move forward?

Well, many practitioners already have the core technical skills and expertise to manage workplace safety and risk, but they don’t always possess the softer skills, such as influencing and leadership, to engage with both senior decision-makers, budget holders and employees at every level in the organisational hierarchy.

In the third and final article in this trilogy, we’ll explore these soft skills in detail, and set you up for success with a masterclass in leadership and organisational culture. See you next time!

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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