30th March 2016

The Safety Paradox


“Safety is in crisis” was one of the first lines stated at an event I recently attended, hosted by Acre, where John Green, HSEQ Director – European Hub at Laing O’Rourke and global safety thought leader, Sidney Dekker, gave an outline of Safety Differently. As the name suggests this self proclaimed “movement” is set to revolutionise safety from overly complex, systems crazy, bureaucratic monster to one which realises people are the solution, not the problem, and puts people at the heart of the solution… Few would argue this doesn’t sound sensible.

John also talked about his and others initial journey into safety in the 1970’s and their moral and ethical reasons for doing so. At this point a huge question jumped out at me which I am struggling to answer: How did health and safety start with a foundation of professionals being driven by their conscience to help the workforce, arrive at a place which the leaders of the industry describe as being broken?

How did the industry move from millions of workers able to enjoy a longer, healthier life and businesses being able to enjoy a more productive workforce as a result, to David Cameron describing the industry as a monster and one which he has pledged to cut back? This is crazy and a situation I like to call the “Safety paradox” (Although I’m 99% sure someone else would have already used this term and I am jumping on their bandwagon!).

Well then, how did this happen? Did the safety professional’s motivations suddenly change and a cohort joined to specifically insight wrath of David?

Well possibly… As is currently happening to the corporate responsibility industry, the safety sector grew rapidly in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Could it be that during this growth many took a role in the industry as it was a job rather than “the job” which they entered for more than a pay cheque? Is it possible this would increase apathy of those professionals? This, coupled with increasing legislation, is a perfect recipe for some in the profession to build and maintain and paper wall of complexity. Unlikely to inspire. However I believe this to be only a small contributor to the problem.

I believe the real problem could sit with the hiring strategy and continued development of some professionals and companies in the space. The pure focus of hiring strategies based on technical competencies rather than non-technical competencies is the real problem. The ability to influence, engage, gain buy in, “sell” safety, look for opportunities to improve organisational productivity and output rather than hinder are traits clients tell us time and time again are critical to success. (see the excellent article on the importance of influencing correctly in safety by Global Director Environment, Health & Safety at Mattel, Gordon Bedford)

Although clients tell us non-technical competencies are critical, few if asked, have a clear objective strategy on how to identify and select candidates based on these skills at interviews or when promoting individuals. (Indeed many have never received any interview training themselves)

A base technical knowledge in most roles is essential, no one is disputing this, however could it be the lack of these “softer skills” translating the technical knowledge into action which is the broken spoke in the wheel? Is it this which has been the catalyst to provoked public outrage??

Unsurprising John Green is ahead of the curve. In Australia he has hired alternative backgrounds, including psychology and philosophy in addition to the ‘traditional’ safety professionals and agreed that it’s the non-technical skills that are imperative to drive his program forward.

Could it be if these softer competencies are improved then the industry will be completely revolutionized? Not only will health and safety professionals, with the right skills, engage the work force but this will be done in such an inspirational way the workforce will grab hold of health and safety and make it their own rather than an add on? (I can see a snowball!)

Something does not make sense in the industry. The softer skills could be a key to unlock this. The sooner the industry tests for these softer skills alongside the technical competencies and puts people at the heart of the solution, as John Green suggests, the sooner we will be in a position to “fix” health and safety.