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March 31, 2016

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The safety paradox – why is safety in crisis?

brokenJames Irwin, head of health & safety recruitment at Acre, the market leader in sustainability and safety recruitment, explores how health and safety came to be described as broken when the foundations of the profession are based on a desire to help and inspire the workforce. 

“Safety is in crisis” was the opening line at an Acre event I recently attended, where John Green and thought leader Sidney Dekker gave an outline on Safety Differently.

As the name suggests this self proclaimed “movement” is set to revolutionise safety from an overly complex, systems crazy, bureaucratic monster to one which realises people are the solution, not the problem, and puts people at the heart of the solution. Few would argue that this doesn’t sound sensible.

John, HSEQ Director at Laing O’Rourke discussed the initial journey into safety in the 1970s and their moral and ethical reasons for doing so. It was at this stage that a question jumped out at me:

How did health and safety, which started with a foundation of professionals being driven by their consciences to help the workforce, arrive at a place that the leaders of the profession now describe as ‘broken’?

How did the profession move from millions of workers able to enjoy a longer, healthier life and businesses being able to enjoy a more productive workforce as a result, to David Cameron describing the industry as a monster and one which he has pledged to cut back?

This is crazy and a situation I’ve dubbed the ‘safety paradox’, although I doubt I am the first to have come up with that.

So how did this happen? Did the safety professional’s motivations suddenly change and a cohort joined to specifically insight the wrath of David?

Well possibly… As is currently happening to the corporate responsibility industry, the safety sector grew rapidly in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Could it be that during this growth many took a role in the industry as it was ‘a job’ rather than ‘the job’? Is it possible this would increase apathy of those professionals? This, coupled with increasing legislation, is a perfect recipe for some in the profession to build and maintain and paper wall of complexity. Unlikely to inspire. However I believe this to be only a small contributor to the problem.

I believe the real problem could sit with the hiring strategy and continued development of some professionals and companies in the space. The pure focus of hiring strategies based on technical competencies rather than non-technical competencies is the real problem. The ability to influence, engage, gain buy in, ‘sell’ safety, look for opportunities to improve organisational productivity and output rather than hinder are traits clients tell us time and time again are critical to success.

Although clients tell us non-technical competencies are critical, few if asked, have a clear objective strategy on how to identify and select candidates based on these skills at interviews or when promoting individuals, indeed many have never received any interview training themselves.

A base technical knowledge in most roles is essential, no one is disputing this, however could it be the lack of these ‘softer skills’ translating the technical knowledge into action which is the broken spoke in the wheel? Is it this which has been the catalyst to provoked public outrage?

Unsurprisingly John Green is ahead of the curve. In Australia, he has hired from alternative backgrounds, including psychology and philosophy in addition to ‘traditional’ safety professionals and agreed that it’s the non-technical skills that are imperative to drive his programme forward.

Could it be if these softer competencies are improved then the industry will be completely revolutionised? Not only will health and safety professionals, with the right skills, engage the workforce but this will be done in such an inspirational way the workforce will grab hold of health and safety and make it their own rather than an add on?

Something does not make sense in the industry. The softer skills could be a key to unlock this. The sooner the industry tests for these softer skills alongside the technical competencies and puts people at the heart of the solution, as John Green suggests, the sooner we will be in a position to ‘fix’ health and safety.

James IrwinJames Irwin leads the health, safety and environment recruitment function at global sustainability recruitment specialists, Acre. In addition to leading the team, James recruits senior health, safety and environment professionals globally.  In 2013 James launched the Senior Women in Sustainability, Safety and Environment (WISSE) network and the Senior Ex-Forces in Safety Network, both platforms which brings together senior safety professionals with a shared background to engage, network and share ideas.

 

 

 

 

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Darren Sutton
Darren Sutton
4 years ago

Great article James, thanks for sharing your thoughts and raising more awareness of how things can (and should) be improved. There are a few companies out there who are really upping their game now and striving for excellence in safety performance rather than just mere compliance.

Elaine Heyworth
Elaine Heyworth
4 years ago

Completely agree with these comments. One of the most frustrating reasons I was given for not getting a senior position in H&S was that I didn’t have any ‘chemical’ experience. What a load of tosh. What I can do, extremely effectively, is motivate juniors who specialise, and engage senior execs in conversations they think they have no interest in. Focussing on technical expertise means that board level engagement is a struggle, because technical experts struggle to speak the language of business – lets start recruiting people who can convert technical language to business language. I seem to have been saying… Read more »

Alan Murray
Alan Murray
4 years ago

Roz I enjoyed the article, thanks. I have my own opinions on the root causes that brought us to where we are. One thing is for sure and that is that the image of “Safety & Health” in it’s widest sense is tarnished. Not that it was needed but Acre’s pavement interviews bore this right out! What an opportunity we all have – to cement the fact that Safety and Health is a force for good – something everyone should be proud of. This is our mission. I do like John Green’s approach and we will get there. It is… Read more »

Ahad Anwar
Ahad Anwar
4 years ago

Good article James. A thoughtful perspective that highlights albeit indirectly the importance of philosophy in safety.

Oli Sanandres
Oli Sanandres
4 years ago

Great article James. These skills are perhaps the most important in our armoury as professionals. Its a critical part of how we recruit our advisers. Most recruiters however still dontbget it and prevent good practitioners from being able to change between industry sectors which is so shortsighted! I look at it a little like sales a good salesman can sell anything; cars, stationary anything! Same goes for safety.

James Irwin
James Irwin
4 years ago

Thanks for the comments – Oli, I couldn’t agree more and believe the sharing of ideas and best practice across industries is surly going to be of benefit in a number of instances. However “no one every got fired for buying IBM” as a result many clients will go with the lowest risk option, which they often see as a candidate from a competitor.

James Allen
James Allen
4 years ago

I’m going to cut straight to the chase and list why I think safety is in the state it is. 1. Some H&S professionals are too afraid to say that they don’t know enough about a H&S subject. 2. Not enough regular training updates to those supposed to be qualified in the H&S industry. This should be regulatory body issue as it is their name that is dishing out the qualifications. 3. The HSE haven’t been doing enough for years especially in the safety of glass in the workplace and the availability of information surrounding it. They have just shut… Read more »

Brendan
Brendan
4 years ago

Brilliant, I agree completely. What seems so obvious is the thing that is overlooked.