Commitment to Health & Safety is much more than Lip – Service!


I am intrigued by how often I read that management express their commitment to Health & Safety Practices in an organization AFTER an accident had taken place.

I think it is time to take a look at why Health & Safety Practices in an organization becomes problematic.Years ago there was a book called Fishes rot from the Head – it had to do with governance practices.

However the title is apt and points to where it starts. Waterfalls flow top to bottom.

It does start at the top. Senior Management are normally exposed to the Occupational Health & Safety Act through a rudimentary overview session. Sometimes this session last only a few hours, because management cannot attend a longer work session since they are always so busy. Fair enough. But how come they can always find the time to pay attention to it after an accident had taken place? Now when it is too late!

Training Managers in Health & Safety is also affected by the traditional view that senior management do not need thorough training. I mean they are highly skilled, often MBA qualified graduates and after all Safety is just common sense.

Is it? What is so common about it?

Perhaps the problem also in the What, Why and When of training. Once-off training is like going to church, once only. After all if you get the message, why go again? No, you go over and over because Repetition is the mother of skill.

Golfers practice their swings over and over, they often go back to basics BUT for senior management it is not necessary after all their job is just to direct. Isn’t it?

In Defence Forces around the world they use a basic principle when training new soldiers. I would like to take just two aspects of this and apply it to the South African situation.

1. Proper Job Instruction – What methods of training are you using in your organization? Competency based training or just awareness sessions? How are you measuring transfer and application of learning? The traditional Sit by Nelly approach is fraught with dangers.

2. Proper Job Indoctrination – This is similar to what the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town call the Immersion principle. For instance you carry your rifle around with you, you sleep with it, go to eat with it for at least a few weeks before you are even given bullets to shoot with at the shooting range. They make sure that you are able to handle your rifle in all types of situations before letting you loose.

In many organizations, PROPER and THOROUGH induction is non- existent. All you get is a vague overview.

I recall that about 15 years ago Xerox released the findings of a study that showed that there can be a loss of up to 98% of learning if there is no follow up, such as refreshers, mentoring and coaching back on the job.

Perhaps I need to share a practical example  with you. My job is to advise companies on how to build, sustain and protect their organization’s reputation. Some time ago I was off to a meeting at a client when I walked past a paint spraybooth. In the booth a young man was working with oil veneer paints spraypainting an object. Now these types of paint is dangerous and the young man is supposed to wear a certain category of respiratory mask to protect himself against hazardous chemical exposure, except his mask was sitting on his forehead.

Since I like to use humour to get my points across, I shouted at him saying: ”Hey man, put your mask over your mouth – a women does not wear her bra on her forehead!”. He laughed and shouted back:”It won’t help, the damn thing is blocked’!”

Now, I could not leave it, because it was important to ascertain whether he knew why he was supposed to wear a mask. He did. When I asked him why he had not reported it, he said that he did so on many occasions, but that apparently there were no money in the budget.

So here is a young man, taking his life into his own hands and where are the managers who so succinctly wrote in the annual report – We care for people?

So now I was concerned. So off to management I went.When I asked the line manager to see his PPE register, he went blank.What is that, he asked.

Ok, to cut a long story short – the young man in the spray booth last got a new mask +/- 2 years ago. So where was senior management? Why were they not reinforcing standards, taking action. After all, they are the ones walking past him every day!

AND this was a branch of a listed company, one of the JSE Social Responsible index companies. Sitting on a time bomb. Sitting on a Reputation Risk time bomb.

The company was clearly non-compliant with the Occupational Health & Safety act. It clearly was not consistent – its actions, behaviours and communication was not aligned. For me an outsider it was clear that their values was not being demonstrated.

This may sound like being naive, but on my first visit to any company I can get one hell of an impression of the company just by looking at the state of the bathroom facility. In the Bible it is stated that if God cannot trust you in the small things, how can he trust you in the big things.

It is quite interesting that if you go and do root cause analysis of accidents, that it is often the small things that cause major damage.

Perhaps it is time for organizations to review their public commitment to Health & Safety, to do introspection and to rectify what is wrong. And that process can be started by senior management being willing to submit themselves to retraining and ensuring that they are up to date with the latest thinking in the field.

After all, waterfalls DO FLOW TOP to bottom.

Years ago, ISM (IBM in South Africa) had an advert that said ”If your failure rate is one in a million , what do you tell that one customer?” The same applies to other companies. If your death rate is one in a”million what do you say to that person’s family and loved ones?

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