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March 7, 2012

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Directors’ panel: Leadership the key to changing culture

The role of senior executives in leading on health and safety was the focus of the opening plenary session at day two of the IOSH12 conference, which saw a panel of senior directors discussing their perspectives on putting health and safety on the board agenda.

Ian Dormer, managing director of Rosh Engineering, explained that health and safety is not about the safety documents and policies one writes, but about culture. “All paperwork does is protect the board,” he remarked. “It should not about covering our backs when things go wrong, but stopping things going wrong in the first place.”

Phillip Willsmer, director of risk-shared services at The Cooperative Group, said organisations had to pursue a smarter way of working that puts pay to the myth that health and safety is all about stopping people from working. He added that the tone has to be set from top to bottom and everyone has to have ownership.

Asked how health and safety can be embedded in an organisation’s culture, Graham Dalton, chief executive of the Highways Agency, explained that his organisation was a large public-sector client and that 90 per cent of its budget is spent on sub-contractors. However, said Dalton, the first thing to overcome is the notion that health and safety is the contractor’s job and, instead, say ‘it’s our job’ and take ownership. Once this is achieved, staying visible and continually talking to those on the front line, who take the biggest risks in the workplace, is key to embedding it.

Dormer elaborated on this point by stressing the importance of encouraging workers to challenge people when they see something that isn’t safe, telling the conference that he sometimes feels a temptation to deliberately not wear certain PPE on site, purely to test whether this ‘challenging’ culture is alive in his organisation.

Putting a different spin on the approach to embedding health and safety in an organisation, Willsmer highlighted the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, and the impact on an organisation’s reputation of falling foul of such legislation, as a key driver. “There is a fear of getting it wrong, and I would actually encourage that fear because it keeps health and safety on the board agenda.”

Dormer, however, commented that fear can be a negative influence on how health and safety is perceived, and lamented the rise of no-win, no-fee lawyers, as well as the media, for portraying health and safety in a negative light.

Asked by a delegate whether there was a problem with the term ‘health and safety’ and whether a more positive term might be ‘workforce protection’, Willsmer disputed that there is an issue with how it is branded. “We make a risk assessment everytime we cross the road. It’s not rocket science; it’s not a dark art,” he remarked. The name, what you call it, isn’t the challenge. What is [important] is getting it embedded into your organisation, so that it is taken seriously.”

Asked if the panel had ever experienced a ‘eureka’ moment when they realised the importance of health and safety, or whether they were getting it right, Dormer recalled how his company had taken on a worker, whose CV had implored the employer not to see his outer appearance as a reflection of his attitude to work. The worker, it turned out, had tattoos all over him, missing teeth, etc, but had a fantastic attitude.

After six months, Dormer continued, the worker decided to leave the company because he had been offered another job on much better pay. However, a further six months later, he asked if he could return to Dormer’s company. Asked why, the worker explained that he had been asked to do things at his new firm that he thought were unsafe, but when he raised this with management, they took no interest in addressing the issues. The attitude of management was key to his desire to return to his old job, despite the lower pay.

Summing up by way of reflecting on some of the more sobering aspects of health and safety, everyone on the panel stressed the importance of the moral duty in getting health and safety right, with Dormer adding that the physical and emotional impact of an incident at work far outweighs the financial penalty that an organisation may have to pay.

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