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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
July 11, 2012

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Developing the profession – Brand of opportunity

In the first of a series of articles examining what practitioners can learn from the business practices of some of the most successful companies in the world, Peter Roddis looks at how ‘brand’ has the power to change the world of health and safety.

Brand is what people say about you when you leave the room,1 and what people are saying about health and safety is that it’s out of touch with reality, risk-averse, bureaucratic and dogmatic. Practitioners are portrayed, by the media and politicians, as responsible for a world of over-regulation that is said to be stifling business and undermining common sense. Unless we take control of the process of communicating what our brand represents, the media will continue to do so, and with their own agenda. We need to regain control.

Despite all of the media misrepresentation, however, we know that many aspects of our brand have served us well. We have developed and created a professional role that is the envy of the world. We are proud of our success in reducing the incidence of death and serious injury, and the way that our actions have averted many potential disasters. We have always had a key role as a moral voice in society but it is now more crucial than ever that our voice is heard in an economy that faces harsh realities and tough choices.

The continuing media and political challenges have made it feel like health and safety is on the ropes. This is not the time to ‘bury our head in the sand’ and hope it will go away. ‘Business as usual’ will not address this – we need to come out fighting. To do so, we need to modify and reposition the health and safety brand so that its value proposition becomes more relevant to the political, economic and market dynamics we face.2 We need to focus on why health and safety is so important, to change what we do, and how we do it. This is about caring, measuring and understanding how others see health and safety, and adapting what we do without abandoning what we stand for.3

Traditional business structures and relationships are changing to cope with shrinking economies, downsizing and business process re-engineering. At the same time, the world is much more sophisticated, hyper-connected and ultra competitive.4 If we are to continue to flourish, we need to reset the agenda and reshape the debate.

We need to do this in a structured way, bringing together key players to discuss how we can move forward more effectively. We need to think differently and create brand passion5 – ‘business as usual’ just won’t do that. More than ever, safety practitioners need to be able to communicate authentically and to inspire people around them. They can no longer rely on their positional authority.

It starts with why

If we want to inspire people to think differently about health and safety we need to consider and redesign the entire experience. According to Sinek,6 it is easy to be overly focused on the ‘what’ and ‘how’, working from the outside in and losing sight of the ‘why’. Health and safety has tended to reflect this by working from a very legislative perspective, resulting in us being preoccupied with telling people what they should do and how.

Successful organisations, however, tend to do the opposite of this, based on the principle that people don’t buy what you do, but why you do it. Thus, Apple would say it exists to challenge the status quo by thinking differently. They do this by making beautiful products, simply designed and user-friendly, and just happen to make great phones, mp3 players and tablets as a result of this.

If we want to reflect this, we need to start with ‘why’ and redesign the ‘how’ and ‘what’. We need to create an approach to health and safety that is so instrumental and integrated into people’s working lives that it is impossible for them to ignore, or trivialise it. They need to really get why we are advising them to do something. Standing on the sidelines in our organisations will not achieve this. We need to ‘roll up our sleeves’ and get involved, working in partnership to engage with line managers in our organisations. We cannot continue to be seen as technical advisors; we have to become business partners. This means we have to build relationships with internal and external stakeholders. We also have to identify key health and safety activities that maximise and support business objectives.

Our goal should be to try to bring calm and simplicity to a world of risk that appears to have become overly complex. Otherwise, people will continue to feel that health and safety is an added chore. Managers need us to ‘sweat all of the details’ so that it’s easy for them to use the tools we provide. Overly complex forms and processes are examples of how we sometimes fail to do this.

Think different

According to Mark Zuckerberg,7 Facebook was built to accomplish a social mission: to make the world more open and connected. Health and safety, too, has a social mission: to make the world a safer and healthier place, yet we seem to be caught up in a debate about rules and regulations. Remembering and re-embracing our social mission will enable us to have greater confidence in what we do and how we make a difference. We should then be better placed to move the media debate away from the trivia with which it is obsessed.

Apple founder Steve Jobs was successful because he was passionate about his customers’ ability to change the world using his products. Look at the ‘Think Different’ advert produced by Apple and you immediately get a feel for who they are trying to appeal to, what they are about, what they value and believe. We can see from this that passion, emotion and enthusiasm are powerful ways to motivate others, but seem to have become grossly-underestimated ingredients in health and safety communications.

To Steve Jobs, people who buy Apple products are not just consumers; they are people with hopes, dreams and ambitions.8 Apple builds products to help people achieve their dreams, and this is just as relevant to health and safety.

Why do we get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone else care? A brand needs a clear idea of the value it brings. The mission of IOSH is “a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable”. How does that compare with Starbucks’ mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time”. The coffee giant’s website says: “Every day, we go to work hoping to do two things: share great coffee with our friends and help make the world a little better”. People buy that, so why shouldn’t they get what we do in health and safety?

To get to this point we need to communicate differently, using more engaging and user-friendly material that works in the real world. Look at the Starbucks website and the first thing you see is a video of a real-life barista. It simply leaves you with a real sense of what Starbucks does, how, and why. You don’t need to read pages of text; you watch the video and you just get it.

Our websites sit at the forefront of our brand. Given that technology pervades every aspect of the business world,9 it is crucial for us to optimise the way that we communicate through the Internet. A short film featuring a range of key sectors and the role of real-life health and safety practitioners would bring what we do to life.

Relationships matter

According to Gallup,10 we are attracted to brands not merely because they meet our rational requirements but because they meet our emotional needs. People don’t care about our profession but they do care about themselves, their hopes, their dreams and their ambitions. To engage people and build relationships with the health and safety brand we need passion, enthusiasm and sense of purpose.

As practitioners, we need to understand how our role fits into the bigger picture of our employers’ or clients’ business, and to align health and safety policies with their objectives. To be successful in this we need to see the world through our customers’ eyes, understand what motivates them to act, and have insight into why they make the decisions they do.11 We need to be constantly thinking about how we communicate with them. We need to ensure that health and safety is part of their business planning, forecasting and strategy, and not a separate add-on.

This means we need to work closely with them and not just as technical advisors. We need to help deliver the right culture and climate to motivate employees to consider health and safety to be an important and crucial part of their jobs.

Our obsession with regulations, HSE guidance and codes of practice engages no one, outside of the profession. The real value added by health and safety is in applying a detailed knowledge of the business, having the ability to quickly identify gaps, and proactively support and enable delivery of safe business outcomes. That means we need to do a much better job of selling ‘the connection between a healthy, safe workforce and a healthy business balance sheet’.12

However, our challenge when dealing with managers, teachers, academics, engineers, civil servants and business people is not only to speak the same language but to win hearts and minds. We have become too focused on reason and forgotten that emotions are the processes we use to assign value. If we can demonstrate that health and safety is about customers achieving their dreams, then we are more likely to win them over.

It is crucial for us to understand that people cannot make sensible decisions without emotions, because they wouldn’t know how much anything is worth. We also have to accept that, in reality, decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. Thus, working more closely with managers will enable us to provide more realistic and pragmatic support and have greater influence at strategic and operational levels.

While it takes passion to grab people’s attention, it takes confidence and integrity to keep them coming back. Passion creates interest, but a long-term relationship can’t be maintained unless the brand proves its ability to deliver. To be successful, health and safety needs to nurture win-win relationships that are continuously strengthened through interactive, individualised and value-added contact.

This suggests a need for a range of new and different job-focused skills for practitioners, under-pinned by health and safety competencies and knowledge. Our success will depend on us gaining a better understanding of the businesses we work for. To develop this, we need to have strong personal credibility, and this depends on our ability to influence, communicate, motivate and deliver support services that managers can relate to. It is time for the profession to look at how it can bring softer people skills into its core competency framework.

Be it, do it, say it

Continuous flexing of brand has maintained the success of world-dominating companies like Apple and Coca-Cola. We need to realise that it has the power to change the health and safety world, but we need to make it happen. As a professional body, we need to create a value proposition that people can relate to. When was the last time that key individuals from across the health and safety world sat together to think through the values that underpin the brand and what we can do to develop it successfully over the next few years? We need to develop a range of initiatives to promote the values of our brand.

If health and safety is to continue to flourish it will need talented, skilful, imaginative and visionary people. If we are going to be able to influence people effectively, we need to be able to communicate authentically and consistently. We have to speak so that we inspire the people around us by building trust and earning respect at all levels. For many of us, the future will require new competencies, skills and a new mindset.

We need to work hard to better define and reposition the health and safety brand by combining rationality with empathy. People will follow and apply what we advise – not because they have to, but because they want to. This requires us to think and work differently, in partnership with our business managers.

We need a passion to change the world and the perseverance to see it through. Back in 1995, Steve Jobs was asked what separates the successful from the unsuccessful. His response was to say: “You’ve got to have an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right, that you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.”13 

1    Hales, G – chief executive of Interbrand – speaking at IOSH 2012 on ‘Confronting negative perceptions and successfully building a positive reputation’ (quote attributed to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon)
2    Aaker, D (2012): ‘Four Strategies for Staying Relevant’, Harvard Business Review blog network, dated 11 May, 2012
3    Barwise, P (2009): ‘Preface’, in Clifton, R (ed): Brands and branding, The Economist and Profile Books, ppxiii-xvii, second edition
4    Sandberg, S (2012): Graduation speech at Harvard Business School
5    McEwen, WJ Ph.D: Married to the Brand: Why Consumers Bond With Some Brands for Life
6    Sinek, S (2011): Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action, Gildan Media Corporation
7    Blodget, H (2012): ‘The Maturation of the Billionaire Boy-Man’, in New York Magazine, 6 May
8    Isaacson, W (2012): ‘The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs’, in Harvard Business Review, April
9    Price Waterhouse Cooper (2007): Managing Tomorrow’s People – The future of work
10    Gallup Business Journal –
11    Godin, S (2012): Blog entry 24/5/12 –
12 IOSH (2011): Li£e savings cash-back: a basic ‘how to’ guide to developing the business case for a health and safety initiative
13    Daniel Morrow – executive director, The Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program – excerpts from an Oral History Interview with Steve Jobs, dated 20 April 1995

Peter Roddis has more than 26 years’ experience in health and safety .

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