Why Keeping People Safe Improves Business Performance

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Case StudiesLeave a Comment

Reciprocity between safety and business performance

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week. Of course, it’s an on-going issue within society as well as the workplace so we thought we’d touch on stress here within the context of changing the health and safety culture within an organisation. And, yes, we’ll get to the reciprocity of safety and business performance.

We’ve covered stress in the workplace extensively in the past, including the stress of the health and safety professional and looked at the three-legged stool of health and safety success. Those three legs are corporate governance, continuous improvement of safety processes and workforce participation. The three are massively intertwined and, if any one of them is lacking, then this not only introduces a sub-optimal health and safety situation, but increases the stresses on health and safety professionals trying to paper over the cracks. For example:

Corporate governance – if the business treats health and safety as an operational issue then there is no real leadership, or drive, from above. The task of ensuring the safety of workers rests solely with the health and safety professionals.

Continuous improvement of safety processes – continuous improvement is part investment, part creativity and part perspiration. New standards (e.g. ISO 45001) and new working practices (e.g. the more complex supply chain) are just two examples of change that necessitate continuous improvement.

Workforce participation – if the business is showing no real leadership, then employees will likely treat health and safety as a necessary evil. The health and safety professional can then be stuck in the middle with no support from above and no input from below.

If any one of these three components are not in place then not only is this a source of stress for the health and safety professional, it’s indicative of the fact that the health and safety culture needs to change. But what are the triggers that actually cause that change to occur?

In our experience, the three broad categories of driver are:

  1. Compliance – the company is in a highly regulated and compliant business. Banking and data centres are prime examples.
  2. Incident – the company has had an incident, is the subject of an HSE investigation or audit and their business processes have been found “wanting”.
  3. Top-down – the company has had a change in leadership (or leadership thinking) and makes health and safety a key part of its corporate governance policy.

There are several examples of each across e-permits insights, including:

Top-down:

Sainsbury’s – From Audit to Improved Health and Safety Leadership

Safety Should Never Be A Priority…(Alcoa)

Compliance:

Santander plc – Improving Health & Safety in Data Centres

Incident:

British Sugar – Health & Safety Refined

The Alcoa example is quite an old one but shouldn’t be easily dismissed. At his first investor meeting in 1987, the new CEO Paul O’Neill opened up by saying, “I want to talk to you about worker safety.” This was certainly a shock to the investors present and their initial scepticism was seen to be misplaced by stellar business performance from that point onwards. Even today, Forbes magazine cover the turnaround as a ‘Keystone Habit’ stating,

“A leadership team that cracks the code on keeping people safe will simultaneously drive higher levels of performance in ways otherwise difficult to accomplish.”

and,

“When employees believe their employer is aiming to keep them safe, it unleashes the kind of reciprocity that affects more than just the accident rate.”

If you’ve read Cialdini’s ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ you’ll recognise the universal shortcut ‘reciprocity’ but how interesting to see it used in a health and safety context rather than a marketing one!

If you’re looking for a summary post with many quantified business benefits of health and safety then please read our post ‘The Business Benefit of Health and Safety’.

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