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March 6, 2012

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Culture and credibility key to workable risk assessments

The culture of an organisation, its willingness and capability to communicate with employees, customers and regulators, and the personal credibility of practitioners in winning support for health and safety from senior executives are necessary ingredients to making dynamic risk assessment work.

This is one of the key messages heard by IOSH 2012 delegates who attended a panel debate on developing a workable and cost-effective approach to assessing risk.

The panel was asked at the outset for any tips on how practitioners should go about integrating risk assessment into their business strategy. Mike Wagland, global head of health and safety at investment bank Credit Suisse Securities (Europe), identified a crucial need for practitioners to understand the business environment in which they are working and how their competence, ideas and expertise can help that business.

Gareth Llewellyn, director of safety and sustainable development at Network Rail, pointed out that risks can change very quickly, and the processes that organisations have in place need to be flexible and adaptable to take account of this changing environment. Lucy Jones, SHE advisor UK and regional support manager Asia-Pacific at AstraZeneca, added that the strategy depends on the country in which the business is operating, and cultural factors need to be taken into account to make the risk assessment understandable and workable.

Asked how practitioners can gain influence in the boardroom for the health and safety risk-assessment process, Wagland said this comes down to personal credibility. “We should not be under the illusion that health and safety has a god-given right to be on the board agenda; health and safety has to earn its right to be [there].”

Jones added that practitioners have to interpret information for directors. “We know what we mean and we should be advising appropriately,” she said.

Winning the buy-in of employees was also discussed, particularly in terms of dynamic risk assessment, with Llewellyn insisting that workers must be confident that they will get the support of the organisation, whatever the outcome, provided they have taken decisions for the right reasons.

He used the example of this summer’s Olympics, suggesting that if thieves steal cable it will impact on train companies’ ability to get people to and from the venues, and decisions will need to be taken in a fast-moving environment and, potentially, by some quite junior people.

Wagmore said organisations will always get things wrong from time to time, as it is impossible to know everything about all the risks they could face. However, if the process is managed well, then this gives the health and safety system greater credibility with employees.

Llewellyn said Network Rail was well known for having a blame culture five or six years ago, but not any more. He explained that a night-shift team had recently decided they couldn’t get on the track because they had no safe system of work. In the past, he explained, they might have faced the sack, but now the organisation appreciated such decisions being made and had confirmed to the workers that this was absolutely the correct course of action.

Openness and transparency should also be evident in organisations’ relationships with regulators, said the panel. Wagland said if organisations don’t cover things up, and are seen to be willing to take the right approach, then “the regulator will work with you, rather than wield the big stick”.

Llewellyn used the example of Netwrok Rail’s ongoing prosecution over the deaths of two girls at a level crossing six years, explaining that the CEO had released a lot of information to the regulator. Talking generally, he added: “Both sides need to understand the level of information that has to be received for a good regulatory decision to be made.”

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