From ‘jobsworths with clipboards’ to seats at the boardroom table, OSH professionals have seen their role change dramatically, along with the nature of work itself.
The world of work is ever-changing. Where one industry is outsourcing and dispersing operational risk, another is investing in productivity-raising technology and digitisation. Some major employers are scaling down, but entrepreneurial cultures and small-scale producers are springing up. Careers for life persist in many industries, but increasing numbers of workers are moving out of traditional employment and into gig or hybrid work.
Professor Andrew Hale, until recently a director of consultancy Hastam, describes a decades-long evolution
in safety practice. When workplace hazards were found in fixed locations, the response was parallel: physical controls, guarding, barriers.
Over time, as the risks became spread over multiple locations and distributed workforces, so did the response. Management systems laid out expectations rather than detailed protocols, and safety professionals implemented strategies to be applied over multiple sites rather than regulation-driven diktats.
‘Previously, safety professionals were dealing with the risks directly, applying the regulations,’ says Andrew. ‘Now, they have moved up a hierarchical level to management, delivery methods and management systems.’
Beyond the compliance culture
The shifts described by Andrew have played out in the careers of today’s senior safety professionals. Paul Haxell, a safety consultant and business coach, says that his career in health and safety began in the era of the ‘compliance culture’, when health and safety often meant applying a fixed rulebook to fluid situations, inevitably creating friction. In comparison, current practice – which highlights engagement and behavioural cues – shapes safety around operations.
‘Focusing on behaviour and encouraging people to see what’s right creates rapport and wider business benefits,’ says Paul. ‘The move away from compliance allows safety professionals to bring conflicting forces together and to think about the business as a whole.’
With broader targets of organisational and behavioural change, OSH professionals have located themselves in the mainstream of operations. Today, they immerse themselves in wider operational issues and adapt their approach to the business’s needs. ‘You’ve got to be pulling the levers and pushing the buttons that sustain the wider culture,’ says Paul.
Peter Kinselley, an associate director of Cardinus Risk Management, says: ‘The skill-set of the safety professional is being able to adapt up-to-date pragmatic advice based on business risk. Previously, it was a case of “what the guidance says” and toeing the line. You can’t forget the regulations, but it’s about understanding your target audience and how you address them.’
Stuart Hughes CMIOSH
Head of health and safety, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team
My role within the team is no different to any of my team-mates – it’s focused on delivering performance to the racing car. We’re each tasked with bringing our tenth of a second to the team. The safety team is focused on ensuring everyone can do that, creating a culture of safety excellence and a psychologically safe working environment.
The value of safety within the team has changed radically over the past decade, moving from something considered a hindrance to all-out development, to a function that adds value through constructive challenge and optimising human performance.
OSH professionals are no longer just in the boardroom when something has gone spectacularly wrong – our seat at the table is emerging as part of organisational ‘business as usual’. It’s hard to know if this is as a result of OSH professionals being better prepared to do so, or that we are standing on the shoulders of those who paved the way before us. I do know that it is essential for the OSH professional of today and the future to have credibility beyond the scope of OSH.
They must understand business, finance, production and logistics. Speaking the language of their organisations’ leaders, understanding their challenges, scheduling and needs.
Health and safety goes global
Globalisation has also created a conduit for sharing technical standards and conveying best practice and has led to the widespread take-up of ISO standards, which establish how organisations can minimise the use of natural resources (ISO 14001) or continuously raise standards (ISO 9001).
Since March 2018, ISO 45001 has itemised an ambitious approach to operation-wide safety management, where safety is led from the top but also in touch with the views and perspectives of the workforce. ‘We’ve seen a growth in systems and standards for quality environmental management and now health and safety management systems,’ says business consultant Luise Vassie, a former IOSH director of policy. ‘ISO 45001 has had an impact in elevating the profession.’
Kate Field, global head of health, safety and wellbeing at the British Standards Institution, has seen ‘huge interest’ in ISO 45001 around the world. ‘Organisations with OSHAS 18001 were migrating to ISO 45001 before the 31 March deadline. Additionally, large numbers of clients who have not previously implemented a health
and safety system have adopted ISO 45001, which is a big step forward for global health and safety.’
Shrinking distances between countries, and multinationals’ interest in applying consistent approaches across continents have also resulted in initiatives designed to draw the variety of approaches to safety management into a coherent global approach. ‘In the past 20 years, safety professionals have formed and set up links between different countries,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s an attempt to define at a global level what the role and training of safety professionals should be.’
James Bourne CMIOSH
Health and safety manager, Viridis Power
My role is to guide, inform, enable and support my colleagues across all levels of the company, with the goal of growing and continually improving the overall safety performance and culture.
The role of the OSH professional was once seen as giving instruction that must be followed, pointing out fault and non-compliance – the person carrying the clipboard looking to catch people out. Today’s role is one of working with people, understanding and questioning, giving everyone the opportunity and support to make a difference and feel proud of what they do and how they do it.
The ability to convey often complex information to groups with differing levels of responsibility and understanding is vitally important. Being able to make information clear and concise while maintaining it’s a non-negotiable requirement to be followed is very important in my role.
For an OSH professional to be truly effective at board level, there needs to be engaging conversation and clear presentation of information. For example, recommending a new safety initiative that requires an increase to the safety budget can only be successful if presented in a compelling manner with a clear justification as to its benefits legally, morally and financially.
Health and safety training once followed technical lines: the principles of machinery and mechanics, the science of occupational hygiene, the chemistry of combustion. IOSH’s competency framework now focuses on the influencing and strategic skills that professionals need to flourish in complex organisations. ‘That’s where the competency framework sits – it’s about topics you might find in a management science course, rather than being about dealing with hazards directly,’ says Andrew.
Peter says that the framework and IOSH’s Safety and Health for Business entry-level qualification are addressing areas of historic weakness and strengthening the profession by developing all-rounders rather than technicians. ‘The new IOSH competency framework is a way to address it. People skills don’t feature much in traditional health and safety training courses, and not everyone is given the opportunity to do an MBA, so the competency framework should benefit the rising generation of safety professionals.’
Andrew, however, points out that safety professionals moving into the area of change management or organisational strategy are entering a field crowded with other professional groups. ‘Research has shown that safety professionals typically stay in a consulting role; they are moving up the hierarchy and are reporting directly to the board, but it’s comparatively rare that they are themselves members of the board. IOSH’s objectives lie in taking over advisory work in the leadership and culture arena, but at the moment that’s a work in progress.’
Luise says: ‘I now know many people in very senior positions, at director or board level, or advising the board. There’s still a huge swath of health and safety professionals in technical, frontline roles: not everyone wants to be the person in the boardroom, and that’s not necessarily a condition of success.’
Set out in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 global objectives that aim to provide ‘a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. The 17 SDGs have been designed to tackle key global issues: poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice, and include 169 targets and 232 indicators. The UN intends that they will all be achieved by 2030.
The International Labour Organization supplies data to the UN for 14 SDG indicators. Its latest global labour statistics show:
People, planet, profit… in that order
Over the past two decades, Luise highlights major corporates’ adoption of corporate social responsibility (CSR), accepting that their mission is not simply to hit commercial targets but to positively impact on the world they inhabit and the workforce they employ.
‘Corporate governance and environmental concerns have provided a platform for safety discussions. Corporate governance is about managing significant risks, including health and safety, so it has helped bring safety to the fore.’
CSR has latterly given way to a new focus on ‘sustainability’, with IOSH also developing policy in this arena. ‘Sustainability is not just a green agenda, but a wider agenda – we now think in terms of people, planet, profit. Health and safety has sometimes had an image problem, so a wider agenda that has traction can be helpful. You
can put an argument together for looking after people and the planet, and health and safety is embedded within that, but you haven’t used the words “health and safety”.’
IOSH analyses the benefits of following CSR and acting responsibly and sustainably in The healthy profit (bit.ly/IOSH-healthy-profit).
When the pandemic has passed
Mass-casualty disasters from the 1980s to the 2000s became driving forces in creating new safety legislation and practice and driving up standards. However, Andrew believes that the relative calm of the past 15 years or so has broken this association.
‘Recently there hasn’t been that sense of purpose, because there haven’t been such widely publicised disasters, so the profession has gone on the defensive. There has been nothing for people to rally round, resulting in a backlash – the emphasis on regulation and safety management comes under attack.’
This historic association between disasters and the OSH profile raises the question of how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact on workplace cultures. ‘Are we going to see coronavirus management systems? Which professions are going to support companies in a post-coronavirus world? Will we see a resurgence of physicians advising companies, or will safety professionals look at this? Will it increase our professional status and effectiveness?’
Hosking Associates director Louise Hosking says that an increased sense of economic and personal insecurity could be a feature of the post-pandemic world. However, she also argues that the profession’s skill-set will allow it to make a vital contribution to the world of work.
‘I think we will see much more flexible working and home-working, which also feeds our “switched-on” culture. If you’re encouraging that in your workplace, it has to be managed, and we’ll need to support and advise businesses on wellbeing. All businesses will be fragile, and we need to be a trusted adviser and friend.’
Already, millions of workers are connected to their organisations via broadband and video calls where once
they were connected by a shared location and a single working culture – a situation that could prompt a more permanent shift in digital adoption.
Louise also highlights the role of technology in accident investigation. ‘Technology may increase some health hazards, but it means we will have the evidence to do something about it.’
Considerable challenges are on the horizon, not least the deadline to shift to a carbon-free global economy by
2050. But the evidence suggests that the OSH profession is adaptive and responsive, and that these qualities position them close to the needs of businesses and organisations.
Kathy A Seabrook
Adviser and former chair of the Center for Safety & Health Sustainability
‘People are at the core of every thriving business and their contribution is directly influenced by their health, safety and wellbeing.’ The implicit value created by people working in organisations is known as ‘human capital’. Ultimately, getting people home safe and healthy from their work each day is foundational to the Center, IOSH and every safety and health professional around the globe.
Successful companies will embed OSH management practices and performance into work, human capital management, sustainability/corporate social responsibility (CSR), resilience and corporate performance.
The confluence of worker health, safety and wellbeing in the context of these core elements is steadily evolving. This shift in human capital value creation is driving decision-making around impacts to both workers and companies for whom workplace safety and health is implicit.
What are you doing to mainstream workplace safety and health into the wider context of human capital, sustainability/CSR, resilience and corporate performance? The opportunity for OSH professionals to engage in boardroom and C-suite discussions has never been timelier.