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June 26, 2014

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International health and safety: Practical tips from global H&S leaders

What does globalisation mean for workplace health and safety? A recent workshop, organised by the Health and Safety Laboratory, hosted by L’Oreal and involving many big-name companies, has come up with some practical tips for a more interconnected world. Dr Jennifer Lunt, Phoebe Smith and Nikki Bell reveal all.

In the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby lecture for 2014, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, painted a compelling picture of the economic and social challenges brought about by globalisation. Describing the “breakneck pattern of integration and interconnectedness that defines our time”, she spoke of more integrated supply chains and more migration from ‘young’ (in terms of demographics) to ‘old’ countries.  Now, more than ever, big companies are dependent on workers who come and go, crossing national boundaries, and taking very different cultural norms and attitudes with them.

What do such challenges mean for the health and safety community and in particular those protecting the health and safety of a multinational workforce? How do you engage a temporary migrant in a company’s health and safety ethos? How do you communicate health and safety messages to a worker who has survived warfare or carnage on the roads to get to work? And how do you persuade those at the top of an organisation to take these issues seriously?

These are some of the problems that have been grappled-with by a global health and safety think tank. Run by the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) and hosted by L’Oréal in Paris, a one-day workshop in November 2013 brought together HSL’s experts in human factors (such as cultural differences) and how they affect workplace health and safety, and senior health and safety managers and directors from a wide range of multinational companies. Their task was to come up with practical, evidence-informed tips, to help future-proof multinationals against the health and safety challenges brought about by globalisation.

The workshop focused on three main health and safety challenges that multinationals face in instilling consistently safe ways of working across all the areas in which they operate, and throughout their supply chains. These challenges were cultural diversity (specifically due to having large numbers of nationalities represented in the workforce), workforce transience, and persuading the ‘boss’ to take more seriously the need to deal with these issues. Overcoming these challenges can be considered essential to creating a uniformly positive safety culture throughout an organisation.

Cultural diversity

Since multinationals operate across national boundaries, have workforces in which many different nationalities are represented, and often use migrant workers, the workshop focused particularly on variations in attitudes to health and safety — reflecting different values, knowledge and norms — which are due to differences in national identity.

As discussions in the workshop made clear, different legal and social security frameworks, local political contexts, differences in risk perceptions and willingness to learn, can potentially make it more difficult to shape a uniformly positive safety culture. As one participant commented, for example, “living in a township with a life expectancy of 42 can make you fatalistic” about risk generally, affecting the risk assessments that you subsequently carry out.

Cultural differences caused by a reliance on migrant workers can also lead to more specific challenges. As well as language barriers, a limited knowledge of a host country’s health and safety requirements, deference to authority in a new country, and eagerness to please in order to ‘get on’, may lead to problems, particularly in cultures where productivity is prioritised over safety. As described by another participant “wanting to shine can be a risk if it is perceived as a link to production”.

On the other hand, workshop participants felt that cultural differences could potentially have positive benefits, helping to change entrenched negative attitudes to safety in the existing workforce, on the basis that transient workers, notably migrant workers, can generally be “more compliant and faster to come forward [about a problem] than established workers”.

Tips from workshop participants for dealing with cultural diversity include having a clear and transparent health and safety strategy, against which company health and safety values and expectations can be anchored, and avoiding “transposing a solution that bears no resemblance to what drives performance locally”.

Flexible approach

At the same time, flexibility should be built into a multinational company’s approach — specifying the ‘what’ that needs to be achieved, while allowing the ‘how’ to be determined at a more local level.

Rotating management between companies can help embed company norms. Ensuring that line management has ‘intercultural competencies’ can help ensure they do this while remaining responsive to local issues and concerns.

Language barriers can also be overcome by using pictograms rather than words, by providing interpretation and translation services, and by developing company dictionaries for technical terms. Local stories and pictures can be used to help get health and safety messages across, as can running health and safety initiatives that can benefit the community as well as work (e.g. information leaflets for families).

Increasingly, companies that have peak loads or that require specialist skills can no longer operate without help of an intermittent nature. Transient workers can include specialist contractors and peripatetic employees (including those who move locations in the same company). Throughout the world, we are seeing increasing numbers of migrant workers, often working for a few months before returning home to their families. A turnover rate in excess of 100 per cent was described by one company as occurring in some regions of the world. A number of potential implications of transient working were discussed. Worker motivation was chief among them — relative to a permanent workforce; companies have a limited window of opportunity for engaging transient workers in their health and safety ethos.

As a result, they may have no choice but to use approaches that are focused purely on behaviour, rather than winning over hearts and minds and bringing about a more lasting change in attitudes that workers can then take with them. Opportunities to involve workers may also be limited to electronic communications in lieu of two-way face-to-face dialogue, forcing them to become passive recipients of health and safety messages rather than proactive contributors.

Tips generated by workshop participants in this regard revolve around ‘conditioning’ temporary workers in the company ethos, for example, by ensuring that, where appropriate, they have a probationary period with site supervisors. Induction events and meetings could be run, to educate contractors around company health and safety values and expectations. Companies also need to ensure that the temporary workforce is integrated into health and safety management, by providing ways all workers, regardless of location or position, can speak up from day one.

Regardless of national cultural differences, a desire for a leadership style that is honest, decisive and motivational appears to be universal and more closely connected to performance.1,2

Temporary workers could also be included in company statistics and monitoring on health and safety, to reinforce the message that everyone is treated in the same way. Rather than just being a challenge, transient workers could be regarded as a potential catalyst for health and safety improvements.

As a response to increasing globalisation, workshop participants felt that persuading CEOs about the importance of health and safety becomes all the more important so that health and safety is not seen as a ‘must do’ but as ‘part of an organisation’s DNA’.

Tips include being ‘risk proportionate’ in the approach taken. This may mean positioning health and safety as business critical for example, where core activities are safety critical (as in major hazards) or when recovering from a serious incident.

Alternatively, it may mean positioning health and safety as an enabler to good management practice (for example, worker involvement in health and safety as an aid to improving communication and performance more generally) where the bosses perceive it as less business critical; or as a ‘value’ consistent with being an ethical company for organisations that promote themselves on that basis.

‘Reading the boss’ and understanding their motives was also considered important — for example, by presenting health and safety as a means by which the company can be seen as a market leader. Finally, managing how information is presented to bosses was considered useful, for example by using ‘high charge’ moments or using continuous improvement or leading indicators rather than exclusively lagging indicators to avoid reinforcing complacency.

Advice in a changing world

While the changing nature of the world of work may bring many challenges, then, there is much that multinationals can be doing to safeguard and raise standards of health and safety in the face of globalisation. This article provides a flavour of what was discussed at the workshop. As an approach that helps future proofing health and safety, the ‘think tank’ was a good example of how technical human factor and industry expertise can be brought together to produce practical, clear and evidence-informed courses of action that can be used to help reinforce a consistent and robust health and safety management approach in an increasingly interconnected world.

Top tips

A selection of tips for managing health and safety in a shrinking world.

Dealing with cultural diversity 
  • Have a clear, transparent health and safety strategy against which company values and expectations can be anchored.
  • Build flexibility into the overall health and safety approach by specifying the ‘what’ that needs to be achieved, but allow the ‘how’ it is achieved to vary with local culture or languages.
  • Embed company norms by periodically rotating line management across different regions, but ensure they have the ‘inter-cultural’ competencies to remain responsive to local issues.
  • Use local stories and pictures to help get health and safety messages across.
  • Overcome language barriers by using pictograms rather than words, by providing interpretation and translation services, and by developing company dictionaries for technical terms.
Managing the health and safety workforce transience
  • ‘Condition’ the company ethos in temporary workers by, for example, ensuring that they have a probationary period with site supervisors. Use induction events and meetings, to educate contractors around company health and safety values and expectations.
  • Ensure that the temporary workforce is integrated into health and safety management, by providing ways for workers to speak up from day one (actual or perceived).
  • Include temporary workers within company statistics and monitoring on health and safety.
  • Regard transient workers as a potential catalyst for health and safety improvements.
  • Persuading CEOs of the importance of health and safety
  • Take a risk proportionate approach. Take into account your organisation’s current priorities. This may mean:
    • Positioning health and safety as at the heart of the company’s business interests where the company activities are safety critical (e.g. major hazard, heavy industry) or the company urgently needs to improve its health and safety performance. 
    • Positioning good health and safety practice as enabling good management practice in other areas (e.g. worker involvement as an aid to improving communication and performance generally) where it is seen as less business critical, or
    • Positioning health and safety as integral to being an ethical company where the company promotes itself on this basis.
  • Lobby other key players (such as shareholders) who can also champion importance of health and safety where appropriate. 
  • Understand what motivates the boss, and use this understanding to help get the importance of health and safety across, for example showing how health and safety can help the company to become a market leader.
  • Manage how information is  presented to maximise its impact by for example: 
    • Using continuous improvement or leading indicators rather than lagging indicators to avoid reinforcing complacency. 
    • And utilising high charge moments (e.g. in the aftermath of an incident)

List of participants

Jacinta Atkinson, director, HSL 

Csaba Csiszko, global EHS director, Philip Morris International
François Germain, vice president safety, Total Refining and Chemicals
Stephane Golz, EHS director, Firmenich
Finlay Graham, director H&S, Environment and Risk, GKN Land Systems
Simon Hatson, group HSSE manager, Gardline Marine Sciences Limited
Colm Murphy, global safety manager, Diageo
Peter Rushforth, global safety director, CHEP Pallets — Brambles
Howard Oakes, HSE director, Nestlé
Malc Staves, global H&S director, L’Oréal,
Bruno Vercken, safety, working conditions and employability director, Danone



1. Starren, A., Luijters, K and Drupsteen, L., Vilkevicius, G., Eeckelaert, L. (2013a). Diverse cultures at work: ensuring safety and health through leadership and participation. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. 

2. Starren, A., Hornikx, J. and Luijters, K. (2013b). Occupational safety in multicultural teams and organizations: A research agenda. Safety Science. 52 43-49

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