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December 17, 2019

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Beyond ticking the box, in conversation with Andrew Sharman

Professor Andrew Sharman, Managing Partner of RMS, and President of IOSH speaks to Nick Henderson, Director of Course Development at VinciWorks, and calls on his over two decades of experience in consulting with FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies such as Amazon, Coca-Cola, Carlsberg, IKEA and Mercedes-Benz to discuss some of the key trends in workplace health and safety and give guidance on improving health and safety culture at work.

How important is leadership in driving an improvement in safety performance?

Andrew SharmanAndrew Sharman (AS): “I think leadership is crucial, driving the improvement and safety performance for organisations wherever they are around the world. There are two keys to unlocking exemplary safety performance. One is leadership and the other is the quality and frequency of engagement between leaders and employees.”

What do you think organisations looking to change their safety culture should be focusing on?

(AS): “Well, I think they should be focusing on leadership. Of course, it’s easy to say that, but what does it really look like in practice? Safety culture is formed out of the collision of four key factorial groups. Firstly, the beliefs that we have around safety; what’s possible, what do we stand for? What do we believe is right?

“Secondly, our language. There has been a broad domination of what I think is rather negative language around safety for a long time, things like the idea of prioritising safety, the notion of safety first and the target of zero accidents. I think these sorts of things are not really the sorts of language that allow for a safety culture to develop in a robust and transparent sort of way.

“The third is ritualising. This means ritualising the important activities or behaviours into our lives, whether we’re at home or at work.

“And then finally, artefacts. These are the signs and symbols that give the hallmarks of what our culture really is and what we stand for.”

Do you feel that health and safety is still seen as something boring or unnecessary by the average employee? If so, how do we challenge that sort of attitude?

(AS): “I don’t feel that health and safety is boring. I think it’s the coolest, most interesting and most challenging job that I’ve ever had and I love being part of the global community of health and safety professionals. Do employers think that health and safety may be dull or this disinteresting? Yes, there has been a lot of negative stigma about health and safety over recent years but that’s changing. Practitioners are now becoming more courageous and standing up and talking about how health and safety adds value to the bottom line of the organisation.

“I have realised that the phrase health and safety is still sufficient to turn some people off. So whether we call it health and safety, organisational risk, human dynamics or anything else in between is really irrelevant.”

Where should health and safety practitioners be focusing their attention to have maximum impact in the work that they’re doing?

(AS): “For me, practitioners need to focus their attention on their personal leadership. With another hat I’m president of IOSH, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

“Something that we’ve been focusing on over recent years is what we might term the softer skills, the social skills that allow practitioners to motivate, to influence, to persuade, to engage, to encourage and to enable success.

“I think we’ve seen a change in recent years in health and safety that the forward facing organisations are starting to realise, which is that health and safety is not something you just add onto everything else you do and it’s done in isolation by a group of health and safety specialists. Rather, the ones that are best in class at safety are the ones that have woven health and safety into the way that they run their organisations.

“I want to qualify that by saying, for some practitioners, they may feel that they’re not at leadership level. They may say, ‘well, I’m just the safety practitioner, safety officer or health and safety advisor’, but it’s my strong belief that it doesn’t matter what our job title is; all of us working in health and safety have a role and in fact, even a duty, to show the direction and lead the way forward. Then we could truly step away from some of this negative stigma that’s been sitting around the profession for so long.”

How would you say that our practitioners can start to achieve some of that leadership potential in the organisations they work in? Is it a case of going along to the board and demanding a larger budget? Do they need to be recruiting more people into their team?

(AS): “You’ve given two examples and it’s neither of those. This is not about stepping up and saying “just give me more money or give me more people”. I think leadership is much more nuanced than that. The starting point is to really understand the business. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a technical expert in everything that’s going on but the practitioner needs to understand how the business works. This includes an understanding of the general flow in terms of supply chain; how the products or services get made and delivered; how the leaders in other parts of the business view leadership and the language that they talk.

“It’s too easy for OSH professionals to get caught up in the language of just health and safety and there are more acronyms and abbreviations in health and safety at work than there are in any other discipline that I can think of.”

Lastly, what do you think still needs to change? Is it the culture? Is it leadership? What is the one thing that you still see time and time again that practitioners and businesses are still not getting quite right?

(AS): “It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing, but I’m going to say the interface between organisational leadership and the professionals. For too long entrepreneurs have been walking into the boardroom of organisations and saying, ‘Here’s our injury rate for the last month. Here’s where we had a couple of accidents, here’s how we’ve dealt with them.’ And then organisational leaders thump the table and say, ‘It’s not good enough, we won’t be happy till we get to zero. Keep going and try harder.’

“That’s not really a useful conversation. I’d like to see boardrooms having deeper discussions and when I say boardrooms, I probably also mean regional management meetings or even regional leadership team meetings or site management meetings. I’d like to see leaders and practitioners having much more robust conversations, where the operational leaders realise that it’s their responsibility to look after the safety of people at work and that the role of the practitioner is to shape and guide and to encourage and stimulate thinking about how to do that most effectively, rather than operational leaders thinking it’s the safety person’s job to make the business safe.”

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Gareth Broughton
Gareth Broughton

Health and Safety Culture in the words of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, is something you “have to feel to be true”. I like the proposition that its a composite of beliefs, language, ‘rituals’, and artefacts. When I’ve encountered businesses or sites with what seem to me to be a good culture of H&S, it is the language, rituals and artefacts that are visible/demonstrable representations of the beliefs. They are really important too in terms of the resilience of the culture – so that a change in leadership doesn’t necessarily deliver a dilution of the culture but these things help… Read more »