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February 25, 2008

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How safety practitioners can encourage managers to take health and safety seriously

Ian Hutchings offers some useful tips on how safety practitioners can encourage managers and directors to take health and safety seriously.

Have you ever wondered why managers or directors haven’t listened to your advice — even when it seems obvious that people’s lives may be put at risk and action must be taken? Every health and safety practitioner will surely have faced this dilemma at some stage in his or her career and, realistically, it is more likely to be an ongoing challenge rather than a one-off problem.

Over the last ten years, I have experienced the full range of management behaviour — from the awe-inspiring leader, who is totally committed to excellent health and safety performance, to the managing director who has virtually thrown me out of his office.

So, in an effort to influence clients and colleagues more effectively, and meet their expectations, I set out on a mission. The aim of this exercise was to understand what makes managers and directors act on advice, what puts them off, and even what aggravates them to discourage action. The findings were somewhat surprising, but extremely enlightening. They have also led me to develop a set of tools that any practitioner can use to help them influence performance in their organisation.

Driving decisions

I asked senior managers and directors from a group of contacts and clients to answer two simple questions:

1) What are the main factors that drive your decision-making with regard to health and safety in your organisation?

2) What approaches by health and safety professionals are you likely to support, and what will turn you off?

Most contacts were unanimous in their response to the first question. Their main considerations were:

– If we spend money, what will be the return on investment?

– If we don’t act, what will be the impact on our reputation as a business, and how will this affect our stakeholders (shareholders, employees and wider community)?

– How exposed are we, both as individuals and an organisation, in terms of liability?

The main concerns related to money, business performance and cash flow. Personal liability didn’t tend to be as high up the agenda. However, these points can change depending on the nature of the business. For example, one client who had experienced a fatal accident was troubled by the mention of money as a motivator, as they had first-hand experience of the suffering caused by a serious incident.

Speak the lingo

The common thread from the managers and directors was that safety practitioners should try harder to take a wider business view on risk, and communicate messages in ‘their’ language. Such an approach, they said, would help managers to understand health and safety, and take appropriate action.

According to the feedback, when proposing any sort of change or need for more resources, safety practitioners should ensure they:

– keep proposals short and to the point;

– reiterate the benefits and any return on investment;

– don’t use too many figures, fancy slides or theory;

– give a simple set of two or three steps to success;

– avoid massively detailed and costly proposals (unless they are proportionate to the problem);

– use examples of similar projects or changes that have been successful, and their impact on the business;

– don’t focus solely on legal aspects;

– avoid going into finite detail, and use easy-to-understand examples;

– remember that health and safety is not the only challenge for the business; and

– explain how the organisation’s actions or inactions impact its profit?

Gulf in competence

After sharing these results and comments with colleagues, a few clear challenges became apparent. Firstly, are health and safety practitioners trained to influence an organisation’s business direction, or just retain knowledge regarding legislation and risk controls? Secondly, what training do managers and directors receive in health and safety, and where does it stand in relation to their other day-to-day business responsibilities?

The answer to the first question appears obvious. Even though we have recognised health and safety qualifications, such as diplomas, degrees and NVQs etc, the profession is not necessarily geared up to effectively influence key decision-makers.

In relation to the second question, even if managers are trained, it can often be a sheep-dip affair, i.e. teaching them the basics of risk assessment, policy and investigation, but not necessarily strategic health and safety decision-making.

Considering that most ‘management training’ does not include much about health and safety, it is no wonder that a gulf exists between the safety practitioner’s viewpoint and that of the operational and commercial manager (see Table 1). Indeed, 41 per cent of UK managers hold lower than a Level 2 management qualification.

Based on these findings, it seems apparent that safety practitioners not only have to influence decision-makers, but also guide and lead them in making the appropriate decisions. Fortunately, there are some tools that I have found invaluable in influencing decision-making, and also some that can be applied to continually influence strong performance in a business.

Cash is king

The brutal truth is that when the moral arguments and human discussion run out of steam, profit and return on investment can help to persuade some decision makers much more effectively. Techniques that various businesses have used include:

– Using HSE cost-of-accidents data and applying this to all accidents in the organisation for the last three to five years. Other research and projects have shown that hidden costs can be at least three times the direct cost attributed by the HSE research. This figure should be worked out as a percentage of company profit. It can then be added to a balance sheet to show what extra turnover would be necessary to replace the lost capital. For one client, this ran into the region of millions of pounds.

– Look what you could buy! The figures don’t always give a real picture of the benefits of strong health and safety performance. For some businesses, money can be converted into a quantity of their product or equipment. So, for example, practitioners could show directors that for a certain amount of this money, the organisation could have employed an extra 20 technicians, or bought three new excavators — which would then make the company ‘x’ amount of additional revenue.

Breaking resistance

Using a ‘resistance-to-change framework’ grid, practitioners can identify where different decision-makers in the business sit on health and safety issues (see diagram 1).

For example, you may have people who support your proposals but are unlikely to be impacted (supporters) — say, the IT director for your new site observation programme. On the other hand, you may have the operations director who is highly resistant, but will be greatly affected by the proposed change (focus). This is where it is really essential to devote time and effort.

Taking the operations director as an example of someone reluctant to accept your suggestions, it is critical to step into their shoes and try to understand the root of their resistance. Even if you take issue with their motives, nothing can be achieved without at least trying to understand their viewpoint and position. Ways to do this include:

– Talking to other decision-makers and colleagues to understand their views and what may help to influence them differently.

– Identifying what makes them tick? Is it purely the need to meet targets, or are they more motivated by healthy competition and rivalry?

– Is there a genuine lack of understanding that can be addressed with the help of a persuasive colleague, rather than just you?

Often, focusing on the other more supportive and impacted decision-makers will help to influence someone who is resistant to change.

Keep it going

Once there is the right support to make changes — whether it be running a new training course, or starting a behavioural observation programme — there is a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief and sit back. There is no time to relax, however, as this is when the real influencing starts. This is when it makes sense to revisit the supporters and resistors to discuss the next steps and, importantly, what their roles will comprise. Rather than saying: “That’s great, let’s know how you’re getting on at our next meeting in three months time,” you really should be discussing their actions and ways to support them with advice and guidance.

Winning the battle

Although safety practitioners may sometimes feel that they’re up against it when striving for a safer environment for their organisation, they should take some solace in the fact that they’re not alone.

While there is still some way to go, they are in a strong position to continue influencing business leaders to realise the true benefits of excellent health and safety performance. To achieve this, they should continually develop management and influencing skills, as capturing these are a critical part of ongoing personal development.

Ian Hutchings will be speaking on this subject at the IOSH conference on 18 March at 4.15pm.


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