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December 2, 2013

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On the right track: dealing with sceptical management

A common problem that many safety professionals face, at some point in their career, is a management team that doesn’t seem to ‘get’ health and safety.  Louise Ward and Richard Byrne offer advice on how to get managers on board.

Experience shows that most people are interested in health and safety — or at least they tend not to wake up in the morning and think, “I am going to let someone get injured at work today” — you just need to find a way to capitalise on that. Here are some ‘tools’ that consistently prove helpful.
 
Louise — making business sense
 
Many people in the workplace believe the headlines in the tabloid press suggesting that health and safety is about needless bureaucracy and finding ways to make people’s working lives more difficult.  As we all know, this need not be the case. Effective management of health and safety can deliver measurable benefits to businesses and individuals alike.
 
Everyone in a business has an allocated role. With less switched-on management teams, you often find that they think that health and safety is your job as the safety professional, and so do not see a need to get involved.  This just reinforces the view that health and safety is something that is imposed on the business and feeds its negative image.  
 
From experience, the most effective health and safety initiatives are developed from a collaborative approach where the safety professional works in partnership with the people who are ‘doing the job’ to share knowledge and develop improvements for mutual benefit.  
 
Rather than seeking their buy-in for health and safety as a broad and generic topic, use your monitoring data to identify an issue within the business where you can demonstrate that making improvements will deliver business benefits as well as safety ones.  
 
Develop an improvement plan clearly demonstrating the benefits, identify the resources required, and determine how you will measure success.  
 
Present this to your colleagues, not as a safety initiative, but as a business case with safety benefits, and invite them to work with you to implement the change. 
 
Do not aim too high to start with. The bigger an initiative is, the longer it will be before you see positive results. Start with something straightforward that will not require too much resource. Keep your colleagues involved and informed as the programme rolls out, and make sure that you measure the outcomes and provide regular feedback on the benefits achieved. 
 
The key is to be business focused. If you can demonstrate that health and safety can support and enable achievement of business goals, then it will be much easier to get the management team engaged in managing health and safety as part of their everyday work. 
 
Below are some examples that have worked in the past.
 
1. The safety advisor working for a mail order business undertook a manual handling assessment of its manual packaging and dispatch department after staff complained of back pain which they felt was due to bending and stretching all day.
 
As a result of the assessment, the workstations were reorganised so that the benches were clear and all the commonly- used materials were within easy reach.  The staff loved the new layout and no longer suffered back pain. They also found that because they were working more efficiently, their work rate went up and they were able to pack more orders each shift. 
 
2. A national clothing store chain identified that a number of staff were suffering cuts to their hands while opening boxes of stock using craft knives. 
 
They introduced safety cutters with an enclosed blade. This eliminated the risk of cuts to hands, and also significantly reduced wastage, as knife blades were no longer damaging stock during unpacking. 
 
3. A large office-based organisation identified that staff on the IT helpdesk were complaining of neck and shoulder pain. Through the normal risk assessment process the safety advisor identified that this was likely to be because they were balancing the telephone receiver against their shoulder while logging calls using a screen and keyboard. 
 
The staff were provided with telephone headsets, which addressed the problem, but the company also found that call times reduced and the call-handling rate increased, as staff were able to input details more efficiently using both hands on the keyboard.
 
Richard — focusing on the right people 
 
In general, management teams can be quite big and sometimes it can appear quite a daunting task to try and win them all over. So don’t. Instead work out who you should focus your attention on. 
 
A useful tool to help do this is to plot where you think each member of the management team is along two axis, one on their level of influence within the organisation, site or team and the other on their level of engagement within safety. A worked example is shown in figure 1 (below) and is based on a common production site set up.
 
Figure 1: Worked example of influence/engagement grid1
 
The model helps you work out who you should be focusing on. Those people in the top left box have a lot of influence to get things done but low levels of engagement with safety: these are the people you need to be spending most of your time with because if you can switch these people on, the rest will follow.
 
While those individuals in the right-hand boxes are more engaged with safety than others, for now your strategy with them should be to maintain their interest but not spend your life doing it.
 
Anyone in the bottom left-hand box is less engaged in safety but at the same time has limited influence. Your strategy should be to not spend a great deal of time trying to switch them on.
 
Once you’ve worked out who you need to be focusing on, you can get to work. The first step is to work out what ‘the management team being interested in safety’ looks like. Is it that you want them to pay more attention to it in their decision making? Is it that you want it included in all the team briefs? Or is it that you want to change the way risk assessments and safe systems of work are done and you need their help or approval to do so?
 
Let’s use the example of wanting to change the organisation’s approach to risk assessment and safe systems of work, and let’s say the company is a large multi-site outfit split into geographical divisions. Having worked through the influence/engagement model above, you identify that the key people to have onside are the organisation’s divisional operations directors, of which there are five.
 
Instead of sending an email outlining your proposal, arranging a sit down meeting with them or even going along to the operations management board to present it, you arrange to go and spend a day with each of them over the course of a few weeks. The reason you give them is that you want to learn more about the business, see things from the sharp-end, and to get their take on something.
 
On these days, you get to understand the business more (even if you have come from the ‘tools’ into safety, things move on fast and keeping in touch with the front line is very important). You also pick out a site’s risk-assessment manual and ask the director to explain how it works as you’ve always struggled to understand it because it was put in place before your time.
 
As you predicted, they too struggle to explain how it works and to save their embarrassment you show them your idea to overhaul the system. Needless to say, they have some ideas of how to improve it, which you take forward to your ‘day out’ with the next director. This continues until you’ve visited all of them. You can then go to the operations management board and present your proposal — which, in effect, the directors think is their idea because they have seen it and helped shape it. On that basis, do you think they are likely to agree to the proposal or not?
 
Another good way to get people’s attention is to relate the accidents to pound coins.  We learn early on in our safety career about the moral, legal and financial arguments for managing health and safety, and while they are really important and valid, in the fast-paced world of work they can be forgotten.
 
Other than some vague notion that accidents at work can increase your insurance premium and cost you in lost productivity, very few organisations really understand the true cost of accidents. Most organisations are driven by money — whether it is making it or keeping costs down — you just need to link safety to that.
 
Working out how much accidents have cost your organisation or site every period and year-to-date is an easy-to-use, eye opening and attention-grabbing tool.
 
First, work out the average salary of where you work (HR can normally help with this), then divide it by 365 to give you the average daily cost of a person. This is often termed the ‘direct cost of an accident’ — there are other things that can get added to that but from experience it is easier to keep it simple.
 
Some years ago the HSE conducted a piece of research, which found for every £1 of direct costs you could attribute to an accident, there were somewhere between £8 and £36 worth of indirect costs e.g. insurance costs, loss of customer/shareholder confidence.2
 
Imagine that your site had nine accidents last year that resulted in the loss of 45 working days. Multiply the average daily rate (which in this example is £50.67) by 45 to give you £2,280. Then, multiply it by your indirect cost multiplier (we will use 20 as it is just less than the mid-point), which gives you £45.6k. In other words, accidents cost the site about £45,600 for the previous year.
 
If this is done on a periodic and cumulative basis, then people will ‘listen-in’. Make it even more realistic by linking-in the cost of accidents and the amount of widgets your firm has to sell to cover these costs and you will have their attention for some time to come. 
 
A few words of warning with this tool:
 
1. If your firm has an expensive or cheap cost base, move the indirect cost multiplier up or down accordingly. If you are not sure, then do an ‘at best’, ‘at worst’ and an average cost.
 
2. People might argue with the workings, so be careful with the words you use when you are explaining the process. You’ll note above I said that accidents cost about 45.6k. If you use the production site example above and involve the finance manager in the model’s development, they will probably become your first convert.
 
3. People in operations can become a little defensive when they first see the figures, so use some of the other techniques above to get their buy-in before going public. A good way to do this is to apply the ‘cost of accident’ model to a big accident that has happened and ask the director how much they think it has cost — use a big accident because they are more likely to know about the personal injury claim, the cost of product damage — then show them your estimate. From experience the cost of the accident model discussed above is normally right to within +/- 10 per cent. 
 
There is no quick win to getting a management team on-side, it will take time. That said, it is important to build momentum, whether that is through working out how much money they are losing through accidents, or by finding ways to improve safety as well as business performance at the same time.  
 
It is all about making safety worthwhile and showing your management team that good health and safety practice makes good business sense. Once they start to appreciate this, they’ll be much more willing to get involved and will even start to identify issues and solutions as part of their day-to-day activities.
 
References
1 Byrne, R. J. (2009). Be the Best: How to Become a World-class Health and Safety Professional. IOSH.
2 HSE. (2002). Reducing Risks, Cut Costs (INDG355). HSE books.
 
Louise Ward is head of passenger and public safety and Richard Byrne is route safety improvement manager at Network Rail.

 

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