Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
July 14, 2023

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Safety department or HR? What about both?

Tim Marsh on the ongoing debate around wellbeing, HR and HS. Is a coordinated and holistic approach the way forward?

This article argues that this discussion is the very definition of a storm in a teacup.

CREDIT: nkeskin/Alamy

Many years ago, I had a meeting with a major client where we discussed the overlap between soft skills for safety and general leadership training; and specifically, how we might align the two for efficiency whilst we had delegates in a room.

When the head of safety and operations left for a quick break the previously quiet Head of HR and training leaned over and literally hissed at me, ‘Make the most of today sunshine. You’re not f***ing coming back here and getting anywhere near my f***ing training budget.” I’m not often lost for words, but I was still blinking like a bemused owl when the others returned 10 seconds later.

When I suggested to the project head in due course that I wasn’t sure if HR were entirely comfortable with the coordinated approach he was championing, I was told, “Don’t worry, there’s been a full-on war between HR and safety since the day I got here.”

I recall a few more pointed words of snarling advice and guidance in the hotel car park a little later…on the plus side I still remember her – so memorable at least!

My charming new HR friend had sent a couple of plants on the pilot course whose explicit job it was to scupper the whole project. She was clearly confident they’d not let her down as she had the smuggest smile on her face when she walked into the room for the debrief session – but her face turned to thunder when they both said they’d really enjoyed the course and got a huge amount from it – I knew this was coming as they’d broken cover over a beer mid-course so I’d met her smile with my best effort at benign innocence! 

I recall a few more pointed words of snarling advice and guidance in the hotel car park a little later. She was utterly charming and clearly not the slightest bit manipulative and political! On the plus side I still remember her – so memorable at least! 

HSE Congress Debate. 

I tell you this everyday story of consulting folk, as I took part in an interesting debate about wellbeing, HR, safety, and SIFs at the HSE congress in Kenilworth last week.  It was gratifying to see that most of the room felt wellbeing and safety are indeed inexorably intertwined. Among other issues we agreed:

  • People who are disengaged are less likely to be situationally aware/more likely to be distracted. 
  • People who are disengaged and demotivated are more likely to be fatalistic and make bad decisions and have bad interactions. 

These, many of us felt, are often direct precursors to incidents that are simply self-evident truths with accumulating research evidence. But, from the discussion, I’d like to share two illustrations as to why a co-ordinated and holistic approach is of course ideal. These clarify (and close) the debate with simple logic in its entirety for me – as ever though, please shout if you disagree.

Two examples of ‘What Debate?’

Firstly, failing to make the most of a company’s human capital must be at the top of any risk register and any company should of course be set up and organised to mitigate its key risks regardless of its structure, the name or number of departments it has or how they are required to co-ordinate with each other. It is simply an eternal truth that the more integrated, coordinated, and holistic an approach to risk mitigation, the better. In short, it doesn’t matter what department you work for, what your job title is or what your budget is. We’re talking about mental and physical health here, so playing silly buggers is immoral as we as unprofessional.

Secondly, we know that a company isn’t going to develop a stronger and more sustainable culture without some training. A simple culture change example: training managers that when they say, ‘Safely but by Friday,’ they’ll probably be getting it by Friday as safely as is viable with corners cut and fingers crossed. Far, far better to say, ‘’Safety and by Friday and if that’s difficult we need to grab a coke, a Mars bar and talk it through.” Not only do we get a better solution this way, but we also empower and engage the workforce, with this this ‘adult-to-adult’ respectful approach being better for stress levels and therefore mental health.

Ring-fencing ‘power’ and playing politics with in-house budgets at the expense of a co-ordinated approach is, in some respects, perfectly predictable. But it makes it more likely you’ll hurt or stress someone – and that’s unforgivable.

To develop this to a logical conclusion, we know that about 80% of the efficacy of a training course is in the follow up and embedding (See Harvard studies). Sparkling, happy sheets are great but someone needs to undertake the on-going, on-site coaching of delegates and safety professionals, here especially, representatives can be key to this – we all know some companies don’t do this at all – but they really, really should! But that’s another article – however, ideally, the skills, mindsets and methodologies requested on the course will also be properly embedded in the appraisal system and this means working with HR. Doesn’t it?

(Then there’s the application of a Just Culture decision tree when something’s gone seriously wrong. This, of course, definitely needs departments co-operating and co-ordinating).

Holistic and coordinated

Ring-fencing ‘power’ and playing politics with in-house budgets at the expense of a co-ordinated approach is, in some respects, perfectly predictable. But it makes it more likely you’ll hurt or stress someone – and that’s unforgivable.

We need a holistic and co-ordinated approach. Where empire building, and politics threaten to get in the way, the organisation needs to firmly and professionally communicate the exact things I forced myself not to say to my HR friend above in a professional manner.

SHE or HR?

SHE, HR and everyone else.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Alan Findley
Alan Findley
9 months ago

Makes more sense to incorporate H&S alongside employment and training, with associated legal and educational requirements, than to ally it with Quality.

Are those who gave us the ISO 9000 gravy train really best placed to safeguard our workers?
Methodology may be similar but, the implications are worlds apart.
There are major differences between Improvement Notices/ NCR/Customer Satisfaction and Incidents/Prosecutions/Civil Actions