Posted on: May 27, 2011 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 0

Some health and safety practitioners complain about ‘corporate safety lip service on a shoestring budget, but sheq officials should learn managerial language.

Health, safety and environment budgets are typically trimmed down like mini skirts. Budget complaints have become a mantra, almost a motto and a core ‘value’ many organisations, says behavioural consultant Mabila Mathebula.

Is it true that top management is not committed to safety, and does not hold health and safety as a core value, or do some safety practitioners not understand the extent to which management should be committed to safety?

Commitment as H&S limiting factor

The Pocket Oxford Dictionary (Fowler and Fowler, 1996) defines commitment as “engagement or obligation”. Management commitment is nurture, like potash to soil. The position was clearly stated by Chester I Barnard; “If we wish to increase grain yield in a certain field, and on analysis it appears that the soil lacks potash, potash may be said to be a limiting factor” (Anderson, 1997).

The same could be said about safety performance. If a company wishes to improve safety performance, and on analysis it appears that management is deliberately obtuse, then commitment is a limiting factor.

Fields of knowledge and particularly application, like applied psychology in health and safety behaviour, are characterised by lack of agreement. One sheq practitioner’s or manager’s philosophy may be another manager’s poison.

It is cheering to note that the one thing that major quality gurus, Deming, Feigebaum, Ishikawa, Juran and Mesing, agree on is that top management must be involved in a quality movement in order to make substantial improvement.

The same goes for safety management, taking into account that there is close synergy between health, safety, environment and quality (sheq). Research has shown that companies with quality problems have health, safety and environmental problems as well (Dennis, 1997).

Top management commitment is vital for improving safety performance. “If you want to sweep stairs,” argues James Harrington, “you do not start from the bottom and walk your way up, you start from the top”.

Top management involvement requires of sheq officials to see their organisation from the point of view of executives, explains Mathebula.

Executive view of health and safety behaviour

Whether you have been on a hundred journeys with executives, or you are a first time traveller, you and your team need a common understanding for engaging top management.

Many safety practitioners have a ‘sequenced’ mindset and lack holistic thinking. Abraham Maslow said that he who is good at using a hammer, think that everything is a nail.

Top management require a business case for safety. The major challenges for executives is not about predicting the future, but in creating an organisation to thrive in a future that cannot be predicted.

Executive are engrossed in processes like employment equity, affirmative action, business process re-engineering, joint ventures, mergers, acquisitions.

Health and safety officials should be aware of the role of executives, and acquire skills to speak management ‘language’. Relegating top management to the background in any project or intervention, is to ask for zero change, or negative change.

In the arena of corporate culture, top management is crucial, although often unwittingly so. Safety people who alienate their executives are victims of the unwritten law of unintended consequences.

Management commitment pitfalls

Health and safety or cultural interventions often suffer from either doom prophecy, lack of a health and safety management system, ‘file drawer effect’, ‘pathless path syndrome’ or lack of measurement. Mathebula explains these five pitfalls in turn.

Safety doom prophecy

The concept of ‘hanging crepe’ comes from the medical profession, when a doctor paints the worst scenario to a patient. If things turn out better than predicted, the professional is a hero and the patient is grateful (Dossey, 1997).

Health, safety and environment people are prone to be doom prophets about the performance of the company.  If things turn out bad, they are wise and prophetic, if things turn out better, they take credit. Many safety people drop out of favour with management for being doom prophets.

Lack of a safety management system

A safety management system is “a formal framework for integrating safety into day to day company operations, including safety goals and performance targets, risk assessment, responsibilities, authorities, rules, procedures, monitoring and and evaluation process” (Transport Canada, 2000).

Selling safety to top management without a safety management system is like playing tennis with a net down. A safety management system enables companies to demonstrate their commitment to safety, and offer a road map to get management commitment.

Safety ‘file drawer effect’

Some safety professionals report only positive results and disregard neutral and adverse ones. These safety people typically ‘skim the top’ of data and present data to conform their expectations and preconceived ideas.

Trust between safety officials and management is critical. Trust is like glass, once broken it could not be fixed. Honesty remains the best policy. Once management is misled, they mistrust safety people and practice.

‘Pathless Path safety syndrome

The ‘pathless path syndrome’ is when safety practitioners fail to answer questions from management. Gertrude Stein in her book ‘Pathless Path’ (1989) explained; ‘‘There is no answer. There never has been an answer. There never will be an answer. That is the answer.’

Safety is a business object, measured by reportable injuries, incidents and losses per 200 000 hours, a Lost Days Case Rate, and other metrics. Management love a picture and want to see status graphs against the past and against objectives.

They want to know accident trend analysis, root causes, intervention implementation. Safety managers must provide these answers, and not rationalise performance trends.

Lack of safety measurements

‘What gets measured gets done’ is a management proverb. We measure to persuade senior management to make the first leap of commitment and to maintain that commitment.

Top management look for safety initiatives with positive impact on the organisation’s total performance. They would invest their time in improving key measures like these metrics:

• Return on Assets (ROA) indicates how an individual program impacts profitability.
• Value Added per Employee (VAE) reflect how individual programs impacts productivity.
• Economic Value Added (EVA) reflect how shareholder value is created or destroyed. EVA has been an economic toolkit for 200 years (Ehrbar, 1998). It is calculated by a charge against profit of capital.  For example, an incident that destroys assets is negative EVA.
• Frequency Rate and Severity Rate reflect lost time due to injuries, and injury severity.

If we want to get management support, we need to demonstrate to them how improving safety will impact on these five measures.

SHEQ and management synergy

It is up to safety managers to affirm big and think big in order for big things to happen. Health and safety requires courage, conviction, and sustained commitment. Stop blaming top management for sheq frustrations, empathise with management.

A ‘sequenced’ mindset lays a trap to all management functions. Communications and marketing managers may see their function as a managerial Cinderella. “They only want me to communicate when things go wrong!” If you want the support of top management, integrate health and safety management into management.

• Mathebula’s full and referenced paper on management commitment to safety mangement, has been accepted for presentation at the West Africa Health, Safety and Environment Conference in Ghana in September 2011.

* PHOTO; Mabila Mathebula is a safety behavioural consultant and coach.


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