How many times have you seen the most well developed health and safety policies, safety statement, risk assessments and procedures in an organisation only to find that the work practices do not reflect any of it?  It is much more common than you think.  So why is this the case?

I believe there are four reasons as follows:

  1. Firstly there is a genuine belief that once you write up the paper side of health and safety and train your employees, that the job is done.
  1. Secondly many senior managers feel they have no active role to play in leading, enacting and/or re-enforcing the health and safety policies and the desired behaviours.
  1. Thirdly middle and line managers, who may never have been consulted about the policies, procedures, risk assessments etc. may not fully buy into them, indeed they may fundamentally disagree with them or find major faults with them so ultimately they do not implement them and no one checks to see if they do.
  1. Finally many organisations fail to win the hearts and minds of all other employees about where they want to take “health and safety”.  Employees therefore do not see what is “in it for them”, so they do not get on board, are not motivated and they carry on as before. Without line management leadership and re-enforcement nothing ultimately changes.

So we need a fundamental shift in thinking, leadership and effort.  As with all things you get out of something the degree of effort you put into it and the effort to lead change, to instil safe and healthy behaviours and practices has to come from the top.  Senior managers can legally delegate roles and duties but they cannot abdicate their responsibilities.

Let us deal with each reason mentioned above:

The role of paper

Paper is just paper and it needs to be consulted on, communicated and ultimately explained. Hearts need to be won, safety leadership needs to be demonstrated consistently and then the correct procedures and behaviours need to be re-enforced all of the time.


The Senior Team

The Board, CEO and the senior team need to be seen to buy into the new health and safety regime and clearly lead and communicate that message. There must be no ambiguity or confusion about what the key message is which should be something like: “we want to make this workplace safe and healthy for everyone all of the time.  We are going to involve everyone and all employees at every level are going to be held accountable”.

In most industries this is not rocket science unless you are dealing with nuclear power plants, space exploration or military operations in a war torn country.  Yet many organisations fail to grasp the key value which is that we must protect our people who are generally the only resource within any company.  I firmly believe that if you look after your employees fully (and that includes pay, working conditions, fulfilling the psychological contract, creating a workplace that is stimulating yet supportive etc.) then by default they will look after your customers.

Middle and Line Managers

Middle and Line Managers need strong leadership and direction from the senor team and huge support from them to implement change. Health and safety needs to be built into all job descriptions, objectives, KPIs, goals and targets with regular feedback, scrutiny and accountability.  Lack of accountability is often the missing link upon which the whole programme falls.

The role of Line Managers specifically is crucial in driving out the health and safety message and programme. They are the front line people managing and leading their teams in the operational areas.  They will need training to understand health and safety and how to implement it daily and should get tons of it. However their main role is to coach their employees so they can do it for themselves.

Employees at the front line

At an operational level we need to engage employees so they understand what the organisation is trying to achieve and the important part they need to play.   The must be given leadership, training and support to empower them to get on with it.

The more involved employees are in safety efforts, the better they work. The trick is to involve everyone e.g. ideally every employee should be a member of one or more of these teams:

First Aid team

Chemical Spill team

Fire Fighting team

Safety Committee

Safety Champion team (for their area or department)

Elected Safety Representative

When everyone is involved, there is more “buy in” and more belief and action based on those beliefs. There needs to be a structure to allow for such involvement and Management need to play their part too.  Generally time is the biggest resource needed, time to allow employees attend meetings, try new ideas, activate suggestions, visit other plants to learn about best practice etc.


Health and Safety messages need to be clear, consistent and honest.  In all reporting, Managers and employees need to hear the bad news as well as the good news.  Those that have responsibilities who then fail to manage need to be counselled, managed and ultimately made to understand that non-compliance is not an option.  All need to embrace a “can do” attitude to health and safety and believe that performance can be improved.

All managers need to buy into the new programme or leave the organisation.

If health and safety is to improve all managers and employees have to agree to become part of something important, something life enhancing, to develop health and safety excellence in all they do. 

The Ultimate Test

Even when the policies do match the work practices, organisations can and will be tested ultimately when a situation arises between operations and health and safety.  A situation may arise where a manager has to make a call between carrying on working (in an unsafe way and potentially endanger employees or others) or stopping the work to safeguard employees.  Some organisations when faced with that dilemma have failed miserably because the wrong decision is made (to favour operations) and their credibility, built up over years, comes crumbling down on the basis of that misguided decision.

Don’t let that happen in your organisation.