Bright ideas

The second of our two excerpts from the forthcoming book, The Ten-Step MBA for Health and Safety Practitioners, looks at the scope for innovation and entrepreneurship in promoting OSH. 


Words: Rob Cooling and Waddah Shihab Ghanem Al Hashemi 

If there was one thing that as an OSH practitioner you would want to be known for in your organisation, surely being innovative would be high up on the list. However, far too often a copy and paste approach is adopted towards OSH management; systems, processes and tools that have been used in the past are regurgitated and relabeled. 

This does not imply that we should always look to reinvent the wheel, as existing frameworks and methodologies can provide an excellent starting point in establishing OSH management arrangements. But it is important not to become a slave to familiar approaches. Distinctive OSH practitioners embrace innovation and challenge the status quo in looking for new and improved ways to achieve OSH goals.

Innovation is the practice of making changes, particularly by introducing new methods, ideas, or services. When you start thinking about innovation, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter may come to mind; but innovation is not only applicable in highly technical and fast-moving sectors. It is valuable in all businesses and associated functions to possess unique resources and capabilities.

Why is innovation important?

Our OSH practitioner insight survey identified that 89% of respondents either “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that innovation is very important to be successful as an OSH practitioner. The ability to identify new ways of doings things is fundamental to continuous improvement in OSH metrics. Many organisations find that their OSH performance can plateau and they often have to adopt new approaches to generate further improvements. So, take time to think about what you are doing to differentiate your approach to OSH practice from others.

Opportunities for OSH innovation

A good starting point in uncovering opportunities for innovation is to develop an OSH innovation typology. A typology is a way of putting things into groups (or types) according to how similar they are and it can be a valuable way of considering the interrelated dimensions of OSH practice.

The figure here shows an example of an OSH innovation typology. It attempts to categorise forms of OSH innovation which have the potential to improve performance. The types of OSH innovation include:

  • Framework/methodology – Innovation can be introduced in the frameworks and methodologies used for OSH strategy and management. This may not always entail an extensive overhaul of existing approaches, but tweaking and fine-tuning to bring about improvements in effectiveness and efficiency. Some organisations have developed strong reputations for the innovative methods they use for OSH practice and have even commercialised these approaches for provision to external clients. DuPont, for example, is recognised for creating and monetising frameworks for behaviour-based safety.
  • Technology – With the continuing growth of information and communication technologies, including social networking, innovation through technology represents another way to advance OSH performance. This includes the creation of applications for smartphones or tablets to conduct site inspections, surveys or audits. Some organisations may also be able to leverage IT departments’ expertise by developing online tools and other solutions.
  • Integration – Enhancing integration of OSH with other business disciplines and functions is another common form of innovation. Many organisations operate with a functional structure which fosters cohesion within the boundaries of the function, but can lead to silos and over-attention to function-specific issues. Innovation through integration explores ways to encourage greater collaboration, such as closer working between OSH and related business functions, such as human resources, or even the introduction of matrix structures.
  • Delivery – Innovation can arise across the various dimensions of delivering OSH support services in an organisation. For example, in communications, there are various innovative ways of delivering OSH messages, such as the use of industrial theatre or the provision of visual impact training. In OSH training, a variety of delivery mechanisms can help develop levels of OSH awareness and competency, such as online portals and blended learning.
  • Financial – Innovation in the area of finance and OSH include the presentation of advanced business cases for safety and health expenditure, such as return on investment for safety and payback analysis which helps determine the break-even point of an investment. Innovative practice in this area may increase buy-in and interest in OSH from top management.
  • Experience – Innovation through changing employee experience is strongly linked to OSH culture. Do people experience OSH as associated with red-tape and bureaucracy, or is it less about documenting OSH and more about meaningful conversations with people to understand priorities and barriers? OSH cultural change programmes and associated interventions can be an effective way of improving employees’ experience.

Reflective practice is an important element in developing an OSH typology as insufficient time is often taken for reflection and engagement to understand opportunities for innovation. The development of knowledge management systems can also play an important role in establishing your OSH typology, by ensuring key lessons are recorded and communicated.

Creative thinking may be hard to square with the order and consistency needed for effective OSH management

A dichotomy?

For innovation to prosper, a culture needs to be developed in which employees are encouraged to “think outside the box”. However, this creative thinking may be hard to square with the order and consistency needed for effective OSH management, particularly in high reliability organisations, which have to manage complex hazards.

Creating an environment to encourage innovation is challenging. Some organisations have even been known to set aside time during the working day to encourage employees to focus solely on innovation. For example, Google famously permitted its engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal projects to empower them to be more creative and innovative. Allocating even small blocks of time in your calendar may help in encouraging reflective practice. But the wider issue is how to develop a culture in which people are encouraged to think freely and be curious in exploring new ways of working.

The best ideas for OSH innovation are generated by employees, and as an organisation there is always more you can do to tap into this reservoir of knowledge. Therefore, it is important to spend time considering the different ways you may be able to gather contributions from employees. Surveys and focus groups are useful methods.

Change management 

Organisations may have to change strategies, tactics and behaviour to realise improvement. There are various models to provide a structure for managing change in organisations. One of the most applicable to OSH practitioners is the eight-step process developed by John Kotter. Kotter considers organisational change in the broadest sense, but the steps in his process apply to any OSH innovation, as detailed below:

1) Create a sense of urgency – there are various ways in which you can make make OSH more important to decision-makers:

  • provide objective data illustrating trends in workplace incidents
  • support data with cost projections to illustrate the business impact of doing nothing
  • empathise with the decision-makers and communicate the change required in a language that appeals to their emotions
  • provide evidence and benchmarking information to demonstrate what the competition is doing in this area.

2) Build a guiding coalition – gain support from key people in your organisation at all levels. There will be influential people who are supportive of OSH change efforts; you need to bring them together.

3) Form a strategic vision and initiatives – make sure everyone understands what needs to change, why the change is important and how it will be achieved. All OSH change efforts need to be supported by a message that clarifies the reason for change. Take time to articulate a vision for OSH change and use a variety of mechanisms to communicate it to the organisation.

4) Enlist a volunteer army – form a large group of individuals to implement, monitor and maintain the change initiative. Although it is important to have a number of key change leaders to drive OSH innovation, you will also need enough people from different levels of the organisation who are ready and willing to support the change. You may be familiar with the theory of “social proof” which holds that if you can get enough people doing something others will follow. This phenomenon is particularly important in implementing OSH changes.

5). Enable action by removing barriers – address the people and processes that may get in the way of change. There will be people who are sceptical about OSH changes. Try to connect with them and address their concerns. If the barriers are structural or process-related, you may need the support of your change leaders to tackle them.

6) Generate short-term wins – motivate people through the realisation of short-term targets. When you introduce a new OSH vision its aspirational long-term goals may be exhausting for some people, so it is important to create sub-goals and to measure performance against them periodically. Passing milestones will help to create a sense of accomplishment and generate the impetus to improve further.

7) Sustain acceleration – try to maintain the momentum associated with the change effort. A variety of techniques can help to revitalise efforts:

  • reinforce the vision for change and communicate progress updates
  • introduce new members into the guiding coalition if necessary to re-energise the process
  • implement new projects and themes to keep the change effort fresh and in people’s minds
  • reward and recognise people who are examplars of the change.

8) Institute change – anchor the change in corporate culture by ensuring it becomes part of the new organisational behaviour. For the OSH vision for change to become sustained reality, there have to be the necessary systems, processes, people and environment. Training and communication will help in instituting the change but there is no quick-fix solution for meaningful organisational change; it requires persistence, resilience and unrelenting leadership commitment.

Despite growing awareness that organisations need to embrace a culture of innovation and change to improve continuously, a dilemma faced by many OSH professionals is that organisations may be inclined to invest time and money on OSH improvements only when things go wrong. 

Cynics may argue that if an organisation already has good OSH performance then there is no need to innovate and change on the principle that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Although there is truth to this idiom, there is also the danger that by standing still other organisations will pass you by. There are many examples in the business world of organisations which have suffered drastic consequences from stagnating and failing to innovate; Kodak is an obvious example. 

The challenge is being able to convince decision-makers to be proactive in supporting change efforts when long periods of time may have passed without an OSH incident.

Ultimately, it will be your skills as an OSH leader that will determine how effectively innovation and a willingness to change is embraced in your organisation. One of the key distinctions between leadership and management is the ability to generate change. 

Change, by definition, requires the creation of new systems and ways of working, which in turn always demands leadership, whereas management is typically more concerned with ensuring business functions operate efficiently and effectively. 

Your role as an OSH leader involves setting the direction and developing fresh approaches to OSH challenges. Furthermore, it is your responsibility as a transformational OSH practitioner to lead by example in being curious to discover innovative solutions to OSH risks and opportunities. So, why not start today by focusing on your strategy for increasing creativity and innovation in your approach to OSH practice? 



Rob Cooling is director of health and safety, WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff in the Middle East and a member of IOSH Council.

Waddah Shihab Ghanem Al Hashemi is group environment, health and safety and quality compliance director, Emirates National Oil Company. 


  • Very welcome article. Shame

    Permalink Submitted by safetylady on 2 July 2016 - 06:08 pm

    Very welcome article. Shame the new IOSH Blueprint for practitioner competence doesn't include innovation, creativity or entrepreneurship. It does mention 'change' but that is not really the same thing. And certainly does not give the wealth of applications in the article. A good read.


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