OSH professionals’ influence at board level has risen, helping organisations to meet a range of global challenges. But professionals must maintain the right skills to engage other parts of the business.
Tim Eldridge, IOSH vice-president, has never developed a pandemic plan that includes a scenario where the majority of the world is in lockdown. ‘If I had, I would have probably been laughed out of the room,’ he says.
‘We can’t plan for everything, and the worst thing we can say right now is “Give me a week, I’ll work out a plan of how to deal with this.” As a profession, we have got to show that we are agile, rapid to respond and not be scared of making the wrong decision every now and then. That fear will bog us down and mean we’re less useful in a modern-day society.’
In the two decades of Tim’s career, the profession has come to be seen as a trusted source of advice. OSH professionals have risen up the ranks to advising the board, or even sitting on it, providing insight on the business benefits of health and safety management and how they affect the triple bottom-line – profit, people and the environment. ‘The most significant influence that I, and a lot of other professionals in similar roles, have focused on is getting businesses to understand what health and safety management actually means,’ Tim says.
New models: Blurred lines
Different employment models – the gig economy, zero hours contracts, increasing self-employment – have implications for the relationship between employers and the people working for them and for health and safety professionals.
‘In the old days, companies would employ everybody to do everything, from making a cup of tea to the chairman of the board,’ says Tim Eldridge. ‘Now we have a much more disparate, outsourced model of working and relationships, particularly in the service sector, and the lines are becoming more blurred. We have to be aware of this and adapt to them in our work as health and safety professionals.’
As new technologies, such as 3D printing, become industrialised, health and safety professionals need to consider the implications of, for example, printing in plastic. ‘What emissions are given off? Are we creating new health risks?’ Tim asks.
Tim says that other technology growing in use, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, provide ‘a real opportunity, particularly in health and safety training, where we can simulate hazardous environments. But we’ve got to make sure we use the technology correctly and don’t alienate people.’
‘If you manage the safety of your operations and your people in a positive, proactive and committed way, you will get benefits that go way beyond basic legal compliance to actually influencing the way the business performs. From an environmental, social and corporate governance perspective, we can show that productivity, customer service and service delivery all benefit directly from the way healthy and safe ways of working are integrated into a business.’
But it’s been a long journey from lowly beginnings as safety officers policing organisations to safety directors being appointed to the board following the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
‘The legislation helped accelerate health and safety onto boards, but it didn’t provide a get-out-of-jail-free card,’ Tim says. ‘What it did was make people realise that health and safety professionals provide business sense. If you talk about health and safety properly, you’re not just talking about boots and gloves, you’re talking about saving money and making positive change. And in times of crisis, like in the COVID-19 pandemic, with good health and safety professionals, the board knows what it is getting.’
'Cultural differences play a role. Methods of persuasion, inclusion and engagement with people vary from region to region'
Sharpening up skills
‘Good business is about risk management,’ Keith Hole, director of TSM UK Consulting and vice-chair of the IOSH Construction Group, says. ‘But we need to look at it in a wider aspect, whether it’s a risk to an individual or the business. To get that seat at the top table we need to take what we are best at in the world – risk management – and help companies apply that as business risk, rather than safety risk.
‘OSH professionals cannot just walk into a boardroom and say, “I am an OSH professional.” They need to be able to understand the commercial challenges.’ This means ‘helping people to ask the right questions, looking at the risk to the employer and the company’, he adds. ‘Commercially, we need to look at strategic as well as tactical safety thinking.’
That’s why IOSH’s competency framework is so important in helping professionals ‘develop the wider skills necessary to success beyond purely educational or vocational training’, says Craig Foyle, director of Foyle Safety & Management and IOSH past president. ‘It’s absolutely critical that people go beyond their technical training. An
MBA is fantastic but it’s not achievable for everyone. There are many other courses that people can go on to get the wider skills.’
It also helps to speak the language of business. Keith says: ‘Safety professionals need to change their vocabulary to their audience. We have to understand people’s motivations, not just the board’s and, as we move to being a global body, we have to understand the motivations of cultures’ (see Culture clash, below).
Telling people what to do won’t help, Tim says. ‘You don’t deliver culture change through a command and control environment. You get it by persuading people to see the benefit to them of doing things differently.’
Best practice: Culture clash
‘Methods of persuasion, inclusion and engagement with people vary from region to region,’ Tim Eldridge says. ‘Asia-Pacific’s hierarchical culture introduces different risks in the way health and safety systems are managed, compared with Europe and the US where people may challenge what superiors ask them to do.’
‘It’s important to understand how people will react to the way you present information, where you make recommendations or encourage people to do things and that will vary according to the international culture,’ he adds.
Craig Foyle says that understanding the culture of organisations is also key to understanding the differing standards in different countries. But, he adds, ‘you can’t take your own country’s template and stick it everywhere. You have got to think about the business and cultural differences as much as the health and safety differences.’
Keith Hole says: ‘In Germany, a near miss would be seen as a lagging indicator – a process failure. But in France it would be seen as a leading indicator, and would be considered from a much more individual point of view, because of their culture and history.
‘But what matters is whether you fixed it. We need to look at best practice and what the right thing to do is.’
At the heart of business
The increasing presence of health and safety at board level has changed perceptions outside and within the profession. ‘People are taking on accountability because they accept that health and safety is part of their day-to-day responsibility and it’s something they want to achieve,’ Tim adds. ‘Some companies now have health and safety values within their core corporate values. It is a game-changer, having the board and senior management’s commitment and accountability.’
Not all organisations are there yet, however. Craig says: ‘The vast majority of safety and health professionals I deal with at board level are really, really good – empowering, part of the team, doing a fantastic job. But there are still a few who are very negative and inwardly focused, whose decisions are based on zero acceptance of risk.’
Tim concludes: ‘We need to build a business case of demonstrating that if we get health, safety and wellbeing right, we will deliver increased productivity and better wellbeing, and all of the things that flow from that.’ And the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that normalising health and safety should be a key part of any business.
In the boardroom: Climbing the ladder
In a survey carried out by the International SOS Foundation, OSH professionals were asked where health, safety and environment professionals should be sitting in the next 10 years:
35% Board-level role
21% C-suite role
22% Reporting into operations
13% Reporting into HR
4% Reporting into medical