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Safety…… Backroom to Boardroom ?

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Contributed by Neil Jones of Macmillan Davies Hodes who acts as careers advisor to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), this article asks serious questions about British managements’ ability to see the benefits of health and safety.


Some years ago, the following question appeared on a Cambridge moral philosophy paper:-

“Ignorance or Apathy, which is worse? Discuss”.

One student’s response was particularly pithy.

“I don’t know and I don’t care!” Something a little less extreme could also be said to represent the attitude which still prevails in many businesses about occupational safety and health (OSH). Lord Cullen’s recent comments regarding, ‘lamentable failures’ and ‘institutionalised paralysis’ may not only apply to Railtrack.

Many senior executives still haven’t made the connection between good safety and good business, between accidents and commercial loss, between being competitive and uncompetitive, courtesy of poor safety performance. They still view safety as a necessary evil, an irritant or a costly, irrelevance in which they are dragged kicking and screaming towards minimum compliance.

Many managers operate within a culture based on ‘safety first’ rhetoric and ‘safety last’ reality. They tend to view safety as just one of a large array of risk areas for which they are responsible, but one which does not warrant the same attention as, for example, strategic risks associated with mergers, acquisitions, major contracts and so on. Companies frequently commit enormous energy and resource to strive for growth and increase market share, but often totally ignore relatively simple initiatives or procedures, which can dramatically minimise loss, or gain them competitive advantage.

Although notable exceptions exist, many directors and senior managers exhibit a poor grasp of safety management principles and a weak understanding of the human, social and financial costs of accidents. The reasons are many and varied, but a failure to include safety modules in business and management education, may be a contributor.

Twenty-two out of twenty-three business schools which we contacted last year, did not include a module on safety management on their MBA courses. Our recent Salary and Attitudes Survey, conducted in collaboration with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, (IOSH), indicates that nearly 20% of occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals report into Human Resources, but to the best of my knowledge, safety is not included as a compulsory module in the exams for membership of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). Similarly, business and management education tend not to feature on the majority on OSH courses. In a climate such as this, where nobody really knows what anyone else is talking about, it comes as no surprise that ignorance persists on all sides.

Whilst safety may not be an issue which is high on the agenda of businesses engaged in ‘low hazard’ activities, it should be abundantly obvious that some operations demand particularly close scrutiny. The nuclear sector, with all its myths and misunderstandings, is a case in point.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) hit the headlines a couple of years ago, when serious quality and safety issues began to emerge. BNFL’s Sellafield site in Cumbria contains two types of nuclear installations. One generates electricity for the national grid, the other is associated with the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and the treatment and storage of radioactive wastes. Sellafield is regulated by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate ( NII ) through the Nuclear Safety Directorate (NSD) of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) who have powers rather similar to the Almighty’s.

Did this encourage management to introduce rigourous control and monitoring of all activities and procedures? Apparently not. For three years, they were unaware of the falsification of data associated with the production of nuclear fuel pellets. The subsequent NII report referred to,

“systematic management failure” and a, “lax safety culture”.

As a result, BNFL’s chief executive lost his job, the government’s plan to sell 44% of the company before the recent election was dead in the water, and it became eminently possible that the largest employer in Cumbria might be forced to close.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. During the course of last year, I was retained by a major oil company to find a replacement for a Safety, Health, Environment & Quality, (SHE&Q), Manager. I had been involved in the recruitment of this guy three years earlier. During his tenure, he had successfully raised the profile of SHE&Q at all levels throughout the business, and promoted the notion of integrating the functions into one management system, a process which is gaining momentum in a lot of organisations He next turned his attention to the supply chain, guiding and supporting individual suppliers to raise their standards of performance. This is also a trend which is becoming more prevalent amongst many companies, who are requiring their suppliers to demonstrate high standards of SHE&Q as an adjunct to product safety and quality. He wasn’t undertaking this activity just in order to beat up the company’s supply chain.

If a key supplier has a major incident, or is served with a prohibition notice, business continuity issues tend to raise their ugly little heads. Consider the impact that an initiative such as this has on the board’s perception of SHE&Q. It suddenly becomes viewed as a serious business issue. However, my chum didn’t stop there. Having been instrumental in encouraging the company and its suppliers to raise their game, he then focused his attention towards the customer base. He added value to the company’s offering, by actively marketing it’s SHE&Q expertise to its customers – and charged them for the privilege!

So what happens next?

What does the future hold for the perception of safety as a blindly obvious mainstream commercial and social issue? During the 1990’s, many large corporations have been broken up to make them more efficient and competitive. In the process, some of the stable structures and processes that have contributed to high standards of safety performance have been lost. Trade union power has diminished. Self-employment and contracted out services have grown. In our economy, there has been a shift towards service industries, away from manufacturing. The recent reports on corporate governance and risk management should generate a sense of urgency and focus amongst all those involved in strategic business decisions. The requirement for statements on risk to be published in annual reports, internal audit arrangements and so on, ought to ensure that risk management, as a whole, will take on a higher profile in many organisations. Whatever happens, public tolerance of some risks is decreasing – dramatically. Railways, air travel, GM foods, and nuclear safety are all areas in which there is a growing sense of unwillingness to accept what are considered to be unacceptable levels of risk.

However, there’s a sting in the tail. In stark contrast to public sentiment, a recent publication on Corporate Killing paints a chilling picture of persistent ignorance and apathy both in the boardroom and amongst the establishment.

Despite the fanfare surrounding the launch of the Department of the Environment, Transport and Region’s (DETR) strategy document on Revitalizing Health and Safety in June 2000, a MORI survey revealed that only 2% of Britain’s Captains of Industry knew the contents very well, while 63% said that they had never heard of it, or had heard of it, but knew nothing about its content. It is even more surprising to find that awareness amongst parliamentarians is little better. The survey of the Political Opinion Panel of MPs, undertaken by Business Planning & Research International, found that only 2% claimed to know the content very well, while 36% said they had never heard of it. From this, we must surmise that the government has failed to effectively promote the most important health and safety initiative to be produced since the Robens Report of 1974.

From where I’m standing, there is a band of directors and managers who think that safety is not a critical human, commercial, and indeed, political issue and have stuck their heads firmly in the sand! Since the Health and Safety Executive reckons that work related accidents and ill health cost industry and the tax payer something around £18 billion every year, it might just be time for rather a lot of folk to wake up.


Those interested in copies of the research should ring Neil Jones on 01992 514119 or email [email protected]

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