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

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Case Studies2 Comments


There are many examples of bad health and safety practice in the UK – you don’t have to search far in local or national news publications to find them. What about good examples, though? One that stands out is Sainsbury’s. We first mentioned this case study in our review of corporate governance back in July and it’s worth discussing in greater detail.

Sainsbury’s is the UK’s second largest supermarket chain with over 1,400 supermarkets and convenience stores and over 162,000 employees. Its revenues in 2016 were £23.5 billion and it owns other major brands including Sainsbury’s Bank, Argos, and Habitat.

The Starting Point – A Health and Safety Audit

In most cases, companies radically change their approach to health and safety for two main reasons:

1. Compliance (typically banks and data centres)

2. Following a major incident (look out for the British Sugar case study, coming soon)

Sainsbury’s, however, took a different approach – it commissioned an external company to conduct a health and safety audit.

A key aspect of what Sainsbury’s did was using a third-party to complete the audit. This is an important part of any process assessing the health and safety policies and procedures in your company. After all, health and safety is about much more than what you have written in a manual.

Effective health and safety practice is about leadership and support at the highest possible level in the business. It is also about the company’s culture as well as establishing active employee participation and a proactive approach to continuous improvement. The latter means establishing and encouraging a culture of incident reporting, even when those incidents are near misses that don’t cause injury.

Good health and safety practice is about having a supportive approach to health and safety too. This approach must be about improvement rather than arbitrarily focusing on targets and blaming someone when something goes wrong.

An external auditor of health and safety will be in a better position to analyse the above than an employee involved in the business on a day-to-day basis.

What the Audit Found

A key finding in the audit at Sainsbury’s was the company needed more direction at board level on health and safety. It also found the company needed a unified approach to health and safety. In other words, it identified the company needed a more ingrained health and safety culture that was filtered through the organisation from the top down.

This is the right approach as health and safety is not an operational issue. Simply allocating health and safety to a manager will not work. Instead, boards and senior management must treat it as a strategic issue. In other words, it should be an issue that they have an active involvement in to ensure the company’s success.

Other challenges will follow such as overcoming resistance from employees if working practices change. It is not possible to get effective results, however, without a unified approach and effective, proactive leadership.

What Sainsbury’s Did

Sainsbury’s approach to changing its health and safety practices as a result of the audit was to start at the top. This included giving all members of its board of directors training on their health and safety responsibilities. This ensured each member of the board had sufficient levels of skill and knowledge.

Before it implemented this, the group human resources director at Sainsbury’s created a company-wide health and safety vision. This led to the creation of a health and safety plan that included targets for the following three years.

By starting at the top of the company – the board – Sainsbury’s changed the health and safety culture in the organisation. In fact, members of the board became role models for good health and safety practice.

The Results Sainsbury’s Achieved

Sainsbury’s achieved both objective and subjective results from the actions it took on health and safety, all of which were positive. The objective results included:

• Sickness absence rates fell by 17 percent

• Reportable incident rates fell by 28 percent

The subjective results were just as impressive. The company identified that health and safety became further embedded into the organisation’s culture as a result of the new initiatives. In addition, staff morale improved as did the pride employees felt working for the company.

What Can Be Learned from the Sainsbury’s Example?

There are lessons to be learned from this snapshot from Sainsbury’s. This includes the fact that good health and safety practice brings real benefits to a business. In other words, you don’t have to wait until you are forced to act by regulations or events. Instead, working towards establishing and maintaining an ingrained health and safety culture will improve your business.

However, it’s not about deciding to do something about health and safety and then assigning this as a task to an individual or team. You need top-level buy-in and, crucially, senior management and board participation to get real results. This is the only way to create a safer and better business.

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2 Comments on “Sainsbury’s – From Audit to Improved Health and Safety Leadership”

  1. Pingback: What an Ingrained Health and Safety Culture Looks Like (Culture Series Part 2 of 6)

  2. Pingback: Celebrating Health and Safety Success (Cougar Automation) | e-permits insights

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