Overcoming negative health and safety stereotypes
Many health and safety professionals are told they are too much like the stereotype; too ‘clipboard and cagoule’. Richard Byrne and Louise Ward share their methods for overcoming negative feedback and how to turn it around.
This article on health and safety stereotypes was originally published in SHP magazine in September 2014.
“It’s not me, it’s you…”
It is hard being told that you’re like a policeman. I’ve known people who have spent years doing what they thought was a good job and they’ve been deeply offended by the comment – and it is natural to feel that way. My advice to them is always the same: absorb the feedback and count to ten!
As hurt and angry as the comment may have made you, that feedback has just given you an opportunity to improve your performance by 39 per cent; that is the percentage increase the Corporate Leadership Council reckons fair, accurate feedback from your line manager can achieve.
First of all, it is important to remember that there is a time and place for a safety policeman. Organisations where people habitually do not follow the rules is a good example of this but as the safety culture matures and people take more accountability, the safety professional’s approach needs to change too.
Even in a more mature safety culture, every now and then you have to stand your ground when people are working unsafely. The key thing is to know when to use this approach – if you only use it in the most dangerous situations, it will make everyone sit up and notice you for the right reasons.
Secondly, how you approach things is really important. Ask yourself: “When people come to me with a safety problem how do I respond?” Do you go at it from a “You can’t do that” point of view or “Let’s see how we can help to do this safely”? The first approach is hindering and serves to get people’s backs up, the other is enabling and is far less likely to irritate people because even if the answer ends up being ‘no’, at least you’ve tried.
Thirdly, make a list of 10 people that you work with – some you get on with, some you don’t – such as your line manager, a couple of peers, some safety reps and some managers you support, and ask them to take part in giving you 360° feedback.
You can then use a free survey site to make up your own questions, such as:
- Am I approachable?
- Do I understand the business?
- List three things I should carry on doing that helps you manage/improve safety.
A safety advisor I know decided to get 360° feedback from a number of colleagues. The comments included things like: “They don’t explain how they get to their decision, they just tell us the answer – how are we meant to learn?” Also: “They always appear too busy to talk to me.”
Although they were taken aback by the responses at first, once they had looked at them in a balanced way, they were able to understand what was being said.
The next step was to draw up a development plan to look at the areas noted. In the past the advisor had thought that people only wanted the answer, not the rationale behind it, so they decided to give more insight into their answers. They set up a ‘drop in surgery’ at the site where people could come and talk through safety issues in dedicated contact time.
After only a few months the change in the safety advisor was noticed by more than just those they had asked to respond to their survey and, as a result, safety performance improved as well.
Finally, ask yourself – in the last 12 months, how long have you spent on the front line actually doing the job? It doesn’t matter whether you have ‘come from the tools’ or are ‘straight in’, spending time with the people you are trying to protect is really important.
This is where you’ll really find out whether the safety improvements, rules and polices are working. The higher up you go, the more important making this time becomes.
It’s always tough to get feedback that suggests you aren’t performing as others would like you to. The thing to remember is, it’s not personal. It’s not a reflection on you as an individual; it’s about the approach and communication style that you have adopted, and the great news is that this can easily be changed.
The key is to be honest with yourself. Much of the work we do in health and safety isn’t an exact science. As Richard says, there are a few absolute requirements, but for the majority of the time effective health and safety management is about judgement, balance and proportionality.
As safety professionals we become practised in identifying hazards, evaluating risk and sourcing and implementing control measures. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we know best, and in businesses where resources are stretched and time is short, this tends to translate into a framework of mandatory requirements and prohibitions, which are ‘applied’ and ‘policed’ by the safety practitioner.
The downside of this approach is that it appears to others in the business that health and safety is something that is done to them by somebody who sits in an office or walks around with a clipboard. It results in a series of rules which, even at best, can only lead to a culture of compliance with minimum standards, and at worst can result in unnecessary exposure to risk if workers choose not to comply with rules they feel are impractical, ineffective or compromise efficiency.
A safety practitioner really comes into their own when they work in partnership with the business. It doesn’t matter what your background is, you are never going to know and understand a task as well as the person who does it every day. If you work together, you can develop an effective approach to risk control which is accepted and owned by the people doing the job.
The key to this is confidence, competence and communication.
What are you doing to support your own personal development? You don’t need to be an expert in everything. Many of the most effective safety professionals I know actually describe themselves as ‘a jack of all trades and master of none’. It’s about knowing a little bit about lots of things, understanding the limits of your own knowledge, and knowing where to go to get more information if you need it. You won’t lose face if you say you don’t know but you’re going to find out, and it’s important to keep on refreshing and developing your own knowledge and experience.
Reach out for resources such as SHP, the HSE website and local professional networking groups. Use these to develop the breadth of your knowledge, not just in the areas of legislation and enforcement, but also by reviewing practical approaches that others have developed. Think about how these could benefit your business, and how you would need to adapt them to make them work for you.
Engaging in this sort of development will help to build your competence and your confidence in yourself as a safety professional. You could also seek opportunities to visit other companies and shadow fellow safety professionals. It all helps to build up your knowledge and experience.
In tandem with this, start to build relationships with people at all levels in the company. Don’t try to tackle everyone at once; identify a few people in key parts of the business and arrange to go and chat to them. Most people love to talk about what they do, so explain that you’re looking to develop your understanding of their role or task and spend some time working alongside them.
The vast majority of people do take responsibility for their own health and safety without even knowing it; very few people actually go out in the morning intending to take risks that might cause them harm. By engaging in informal conversation you can tap in to this; find out what they consider the key hazards to be, and what steps they take to avoid getting hurt. You can also lead the conversation to discuss what could be done to improve safety in their role. Agree a quick and simple improvement that could be made, then work with the individual to make it happen. The result will be a risk control that is ‘owned’ by the individual and they will see health and safety enabling their work rather than getting in the way of it.
This approach can lead to an effective and positive culture where safety is done as part of the business rather than as an extra or an add on. Staff will feel empowered to raise concerns and suggest improvements, knowing that the safety team will engage with them to share knowledge and experience in order to develop a solution.
It’s not easy, and it can take some time, but adopting this sort of collaborative approach can make a real difference to the way that you are perceived by your manager and your colleagues. It can also lead to a step change in safety performance for the organisation, and is tremendously rewarding.
The most important things are to be confident in your knowledge, continue to build your experience of real and practical safety solutions, and to develop a collaborative communication style.
A safety professional that I know took a job in a company where safety was done in the office and had little impact on the production floor. She worked hard, using the techniques above, to develop a more engaging and collaborative approach, but struggled to see any real change.
One day a supervisor from one of the production lines came to her office to report that staff were overriding safety systems on the machinery. She was pleased that he’d raised this with her, and got up to go and deal with the problem, but he stopped her.
Instead of identifying the issue and at worst ignoring it, or at best reporting it, he’d chatted about it with his team, identified why people were overriding the controls and come up with a way to fix it. He’d even had the apprentice make up a prototype of a modified control lever in the workshop to illustrate how it would work.
The safety professional was delighted. She worked with the supervisor to get the new controls introduced, and they were universally accepted by the workforce as it was a sensible and practical solution designed by them to keep them safe. The slow and steady approach had paid off and went on to grow and make a real difference to the company.
So it can work. Be honest with yourself, keep building on your knowledge and experience and build your communication skills so that you can work collaboratively. I promise you’ll see a big difference in the way that you are perceived by your colleagues, and you’ll feel more fulfilled and happier in your work too.
Richard Byrne is health and safety director for the contract merchanting division of Travis Perkins plc and Louise Ward is head of passenger and public safety at Network Rail.
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