We need to talk about health and safety

It has been over 12 months since the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 was enacted and, in that time, there has been a lot of positive activity within companies to improve their health and safety performance.

Much of this activity has been at the senior management or board level as directors and CEOs come to grips in understanding their officer duties under the act. There has been an increase in the quantity and quality of information boards have been receiving and this has generated a lot of positive discussion at board level.

Companies (PCBUs) have also been reviewing their health and safety systems and processes to ensure they reflect the new requirements under the act. This has resulted in changes in approach, talking about “risk” rather than just “hazards” and reviewing the level of worker participation and engagement in their health and safety processes.

Despite this good work by many companies, the results of the recent H&S Leadership Forum survey of CEOs highlighted that safety culture and worker attitudes are still the main challenges CEOs struggled with.

The Deloitte survey showed progress was made in 2016 based on commitment from the top and having a plan for improvement. However, CEOs identified culture and worker attitude as one of the main barriers to improving health and safety performance in their workplaces.

A number of other challenges were also highlighted including contractor management, worker engagement and risk management but culture and worker attitudes stood out for these CEOs.

I believe there’s a strong connection between the two issues, as the culture of an organisation strongly influences the attitude and behaviour of its workers and therefore their level of engagement. Research tells us a highly engaged workforce not only supports and enhances the health and safety performance and culture of a company but also has a positive impact on the bottom line from the additional discretionary effort this brings.

Cultural challenges

One of the challenges when we talk about culture – and specifically a health and safety culture – is that there are a number of definitions of what this type of culture is, especially among health and safety professionals. This difference in meaning causes confusion with leaders.

But Edgar Schein, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said that “leaders create cultures by what they systematically pay attention to. This can mean anything from what they notice and comment on, to what they measure, control, reward and in others ways systematically deal with.”

One way leaders can achieve a positive health and safety culture is by engaging with the workforce directly and having conversations with workers about health and safety.

The safety conversations should be structured around listening to workers, rather than telling workers about safety.

Mindful leaders should go and find out for themselves from their workers on site or shop floor what’s going on. The aim is to listen and learn and not just talk.

This sounds easier said than done and, in my experience, some leaders struggle with this as they feel the conversation is ‘forced’ and not ‘authentic.’

This is quite natural, especially when starting off, and if the leader feels awkward there’s no doubt the worker will be feeling uncomfortable as well. But leaders need to take the initiative to build the relationship between them and their workers so the conversation comes across as easily as if they were talking about the latest All Blacks selection and Silver Ferns result.

The direct approach

By going to the source, leaders will learn more about the health and safety issue facing workers rather than reading reports or relying on audits. They need to be persistent and consistent in their approach.

Unplanned sessions with random workers and OH&S representatives are the most effective. Visit singly so as not to overwhelm workers and remember the purpose of the conversation is to get information, not to give them a lesson in safety.

The emphasis must be on what we (as management) can do better, and not what you (as workers) are doing wrong.

Senior leaders should try to spend one hour a week talking about health and safety with their workers across all their workplaces and/or when they visit remote sites.

The message these conversations send to workers is that health and safety is important to the chief executive/managing director and that everyone has responsibility for the health and safety within the organisation.

These conversations can also be used as feedback to the rest of the leadership team as well as the board.

Edgar Schein also said, “Leaders create and change cultures, while managers and administrators live within them.”

Improving culture isn’t easy and takes time but to improve the health and safety performance in New Zealand, we are going to have to start having these conversations.

Some tips for leaders

  • Make time for safety conversations and talk about health as well
  • Make them a ‘one on one’ experience
  • Go there to listen and learn, not for a chat
  • Start with open questions to get the worker talking
  • Don’t use technical terms
  • Ask what we can do better in health and safety
  • Thank the worker for their input
  • Use what you learn to inform the leadership team and board

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