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April 19, 2007

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Leading the way to safety

Health and safety is an issue that requires leadership — and that was a point that was very much evident from what speakers at IOSH 07 were saying.

Without leaders showing their support for health and safety proposals and visibly demonstrating support with actions, rather than words, it’s a hard task to convince anyone to buy in all the time.

For an employer like Sainsbury’s with over 800 stores across the UK employing around 150,000 staff, health and safety is a crucial reputational and corporate social responsibility tool. Neil Lennox, health and safety manager at Sainsbury’s, told the conference: “We have 16.5 million customers walk through our doors every week. Nobody wants to go to Sainsbury’s and go home in the back of an ambulance because that’s not a great shopping experience.”

Neil also has to worry about the safety and health of Sainsbury’s staff: “We want to be a place where people want to come to work and they are proud to work for us. Health and safety is integral to that. If health and safety is undermined and if our staff feel they are not looked after they will not do what we want them to, and that is to tell people about what we do and how well we do.”

Key to this has been gaining board level leadership, something which Neil has, working with Sainsbury’s group HR director, Imelda Walsh, strived hard to achieve.

“Each of our board has been through a health and safety training course to remind them of what they need to do as leaders. It’s something that pricks their conscience and helps them talk the talk and walk the walk. Imelda’s personal leadership role has been vital and she has got health and safety discussed at every board ‘huddle’. Having that in the boardroom is critical.”

This is a message that Colonel Chris Manning, head of health, safety and environmental protection for the British Army, reiterated: “The Army is a large, diverse organisation that is organised for war. It therefore needs special solutions to engender safety culture.

“The first step is to secure top-level commitment. This is simple. When presented with the safety question, there is not one senior officer who does not sign up to it. However, a written statement is not enough. Visible, audible commitment from the very top has huge impact.”

Col Manning added that, to keep senior management interested, you need “to hit them with hard, relevant performance statistics with analysis” and not with “tedious” health and safety issues. You also need to teach them the essentials of applying risk management.

And when taking on such an enormous project as the construction of facilities for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there has to be a strong sense of leadership.

Lawrence Waterman, head of health and safety at the Olympic Delivery Authority, said: “We’ve had to have a real focus on leadership from the management and directorship. We have a corporate target to build the venues without killing anybody. It would be terrible if we built wonderful sporting facilities but do so over the broken bodies of the people who built them.”

As part of this ‘leadership from the top’, the ODA has established a health and safety standard that all suppliers, designers and contractors will be expected to meet at all times. The ODA will also be publishing health and safety reports yearly, which shows a willingness from senior management to be accountable for safety issues. It’s only with management commitment like this that a project like the Olympics can hope to be safe and secure.

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