This is the first of a series of articles based on an article published in SHP Magazine in 2011. The articles will be amended to reflect developments since it was originally published. Sign up to my blog for notification of when parts 2 and 3 are published.
For the past few years we have been under constant pressure and attack by the government and the media. I think it is time for the profession to move on by facing the challenges head on. The health and safety brand needs to change and we all have a role in achieving this. In a depression no one is spared the harsh realities of the economic crisis, but cutting costs must not translate into cutting corners in keeping people at work healthy and safe. In these uncertain times we need to demonstrate that we are up to the challenge of delivering services that offer real value. Health and safety can’t sit in the corner licking its wounds waiting for the challenge to go away. The challenge strikes at the very root of what we do and what we are trying to achieve. Navel gazing will not move the profession forward, we need a new outlook. So what does that mean in practice?
One of the most fundamental changes is the need to move away from a passive technical service to a more active partnership with the client. It is not just about raising the profile of health and safety but about providing a clearer understanding of what the service is trying to achieve and how that contributes to the organisations objectives. The profession needs to be less focused on the technical aspects of the job and take a wider more business focused perspective. As technical specialists, practitioners are often involved in a fairly passive exchange of information and advice. They try to take a holistic approach, but do they really take the time to stand back and reflect on the whole collection of services they deliver?
Practitioners need to realise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to service delivery, particularly in large and complex organisations, and develop the expertise required to identify and deal with a variety of customer demands. They need courage, tenacity, experience and ability to work on their own initiative and deliver services that the client needs to survive. The common approach to Auditing provides a prime example of how we need to change. Non-compliance is often identified as a local fault, but an effective system should alert managers that something is systemically wrong. This illustrates the importance of evaluating audit outcomes to identify the trends and any overall improvements to the safety management system. To be more effective, when we audit and find significant issues in a service, we need to provide support with the action required to rectify the problem. Real effective implementation of the changes required to address many health and safety problems is not easy and managers often fail to address the root cause. At first, this change of approach may be difficult because health and safety is not about identifying the non compliance and walking away. Good health and safety professionals have never done this anyway! It’s about understanding the context, working with managers, supervisors and staff in the workplace, it’s about being hands on but with the objective of improving the systems, understanding the behavioural issues and acknowledging the financial constraints.
It’s not just about senior managers!
Practitioners often see organisations as command and control hierarchies; if the boss says something is important then everyone will follow. Its is crucial to get senior managers on board, but it’s only part of the picture. A related problem in large organisations is that we often have more than one client to satisfy. Senior managers, for example, seek assurance that the organisation is compliant with legal requirements, while local managers are looking for a more hands-on support. We have to design service delivery to suit our organisations and deliver clearly defined outcomes that managers at levels buy into.
It’s not just about legal compliance
While the legal argument is compelling, managers also need to understand that failure to control health and safety risks properly can have a damaging effect on the business. Practitioners need to be more effective at communicating this message to managers, by using more sophisticated business arguments to justify changes to the way that safety is managed. The arguments need to relate to risk, opportunity and efficiency as part of an overall approach to corporate governance. To achieve this, practitioners need to develop an active-partnership approach.
I will be exploring what this means in future postings.
This post is based on an article first published in the Safety and Health Practitioner in 2011 to support a presentation to the IOSH Conference 2011 http://www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/iosh-11-clearing-the-decks