Airborne Hazardous Substances
Drugs And Alcohol
- Show more +
Emergency Response And Planning
Ergonomics And Human Factors
Health And Wellbeing
International Health And Safety
Legislation And Enforcement
Lifting And Handling
Noise And Vibration
Safety Culture And Procedures
Slips And Trips
Training And Competence
Transport And Road Safety
Work At Height
Retail And Leisure
Transport And Logistics
Viewpoint – Nice and easy does it22 August 2012
The reason why the professional relationship between health and safety advisors/consultants and their senior management/clients often fails is because of an over-complicated approach by the former and a consequent lack of understanding by the latter. Kevin McCloskey suggests paring it back to the essentials.
At the IOSH conference earlier this year, HSE chair Judith Hackitt urged delegates to make health and safety as easy to understand as possible for the people they work with and “put yourself out of a job”.1 Well, the recession is already helping with the latter, but in terms of the former, there is certainly more we, as health and safety consultants/advisors/managers, can do to ensure those using our services understand fully the nature of our professional relationship.
While it is tempting to blame failures in health and safety management on your clients/the senior management in your organisation not ‘getting’ the importance of the issue(s), or not taking, or acting properly on your advice, we need to start in our own backyards first.
Some of the problems our profession faces – particularly those of us working in or for smaller companies2 – arise from a lack of clear communication on the health and safety journey being undertaken by the client, and failure to determine from the start who should be doing what along the way.
There is an internal battle going on in every practitioner’s head between their technical, ‘explicit’ knowledge and their key ‘tacit’ skills, such as the ability to analyse and strategise. On the explicit side, egos are easily built up and then brought down to earth again, as we are in a profession that involves a very wide range of technical skills and knowledge, and no one person can know/do it all.
On the tacit side, simple yet valid challenges from clients/managers can cut right to the heart of the good we thought we were doing – for example: “What’s the point of a health and safety management system when I can see and list the hazards right now?”
As I see it, for the relationship between the advisor and the client to work effectively, the former must inspire trust and be consistent, so that the latter will engage in managing health and safety with you and not simply follow (or disregard) the instructions you give them.
Gaining the trust of clients is arguably harder now than ever, in a climate in which the health and safety profession is routinely criticised and mocked by the media, government and society in general. In fairness, however, some of the brickbats are justified. There are service providers out there who offer the world but deliver the Isle of Wight! Many of us will have joined a new organisation, or taken on a new client and been dismayed by the gigantic pile of nicely printed and bound but dust-laden folders left behind by the previous incumbent.
In his book, The Seven Cs of Consulting, Mick Cope says: “Trust is the cement that builds and sustains any client relationship. It provides the underlying bond to ensure that promises are kept, work is completed on time, and knowledge is shared.” He summarises factors that make up T.R.U.S.T. as: Truthful; Responsive; Uniform; Safe; and Trained.3
As professionals, it’s up to us to ensure there is a high level of honesty and integrity in what we offer to clients, and offering to ‘do it all for them’ and implying they don’t need to lift a finger is therefore not an option.
The psychologist Robert Cialdini4 showed that two important aspects of establishing credibility and influence are: being honest and being consistent. Practitioners exist to provide a service and get paid for it, so there may be a natural aversion to being totally honest with a client, or senior manager, at the outset. But often, admitting something that could be seen as a negative, e.g “I can’t do all your risk assessments for you”, can increase your credibility.
There will always be some practitioners who like holding on to the power of being seen as the expert – of being needed to adjudicate between ‘safe’ and ‘not safe’ – and therefore would not be so inclined to hand over this power.
For others, feeling vulnerable is their biggest concern. Those who possess a higher proportion of tacit ‘soft skills’ (rather than being a technical expert in a particular field) can find it more difficult to explain their worth. But a willingness to show vulnerability can be a good thing – it is evidence of courage, not weakness and is ‘the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.5
In fact, once we’re free from the constraints of ‘being the expert on all things’ then we have the freedom to ask all the penetrating, ‘dumb’ questions we always wanted to ask – and we can usually still add value thanks to our experience of tackling similar problems.
Most clients, when hiring an advisor/consultant, want, in the first place, someone who ‘knows their way around’ health and safety and, secondly, someone who can apply specific technical skills, e.g. advising on specific features concerning fall-restraint systems, etc. However, many also see health and safety as something they can do in ‘one hit’; they underestimate the broader management tasks – and their influence – versus the operational tasks. They view compliance as merely getting the right paperwork together, and, consequently, they are sometimes suspicious of anyone who says there is more to it than that.
The trick for practitioners is to move clients from thinking “my premises has lots of hazards, I must get a health and safety person to tell me what to do”, to thinking more along the lines of: “My premises has lots of hazards, I must get a health and safety person to show me how to manage this better into the future.”
We need to make sure they understand that they need help over the whole health and safety management cycle, and not just a set of short-term ‘compliance documents’, like risk assessments and policies (which subsequently aren’t followed). As Ron Reid, solicitor at Shoosmiths, reminded delegates at the SHP Legal Arena recently, the HSE – unless it is carrying out a proactive campaign, investigates health and safety systems, not topics.6
So that clients are better informed about the road ahead, practitioners have to show them what the road ahead looks like, and be honest about everyone’s roles. A simple system can be used to cut out potentially confusing detail and thus allow room for the client and advisor to discuss what they both can do to tackle the relevant tasks, enabling individual technical expertise to be expressed.
This also helps the advisor manage expectations and underline to the client that it’s not about a ‘quick fix’. The aim is to move towards sustainable health and safety management, rather than just the ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ technicalities, or the collection of different bits of paper.
With a simple, outline system it will be clear which tasks the advisor can carry out for the client, which they can do together, and which ones they really need to do for themselves. On a practical level, when tasks are broken down into more manageable chunks, they can be drip-fed into the working lives of busy directors/senior managers, who need to see actions in the context of the ‘big picture’.
Being more open about the journey means we will increase our credibility by clearly showing that we know what we’re good at, and that we are about more than just ticking boxes marked ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’.
Some may worry that we will literally ‘do ourselves out of a job’ but, like a group of climbing enthusiasts in the Himalayas who are shown a map by a Sherpa, people aren’t going to head off and tackle it by themselves but they will be much better prepared for the road ahead as a result of the advice they receive.
3 Cope, M (2003): The Seven Cs of Consulting (2nd Ed.), Pearson Education
4 Cialdini, R (2007): Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, HarperBusiness
Kevin McCloskey runs his own consultancy business.
Join SHP Online
- ✔ Download free reports and research
- ✔ Access free Digital magazine
- ✔ Email newsletter briefings