Business operations

Safety is a team sport

Michael Nates, Tech IOSH, offers a footballing analogy for making OSH everyone’s responsibility  

Safety is a team sport
Image credit: ©iStock/Lawrence Sawyer

Integrating health, safety and the environment (HS&E) practices into core business operations has always been an ongoing challenge for OSH professionals. 

In many organisations safety is seen as purely the safety teams’ responsibility, while the operations and maintenance (O&M) or construction teams get on with their daily duties. This compartmentalised perspective is out of date when compared with current best practices that insist that HS&E is a key responsibility and line function of the operational teams. In spite of efforts to reiterate this message, it is seldom embraced due to misunderstandings and reluctance to change or take personal responsibility. 

Presenting this view of safety as an operational function in a way that is understandable to everybody – executives, managers, team leaders and operational personnel – is essential. One way to get it across to all concerned is by way of analogy.

One commonality across the globe is football – it is a simple bridge to connect diverse groups. Everybody understands the basic rules of football, even those who take no interest in the game.
Imagine that an operational facility is similar to a football team. Just as football is a team sport and everyone in the team has a role which impacts all others in the team: forwards, midfield, defence, goalkeeper, so production and construction teams have their defined positions and roles in the team formation defined by the organisational structure. 

The forwards – the people who go out every game and score the goals get the glory and make the team successful – are similar to the operators and production staff who work shift after shift. The majority of business key performance indicators are production-focused and everyone understands that we must support production to be successful. 

The midfield is comparable to the first-line supervisors and middle management as they watch and support the production plan, execute team strategy and ensure that the whole organisation works together. They are the middlemen that take the ball from the defence, move it up through the system and ensure that it gets to the production team so that the strikers net the production goals.

The defence is analogous to the maintenance team who are working in the background to make certain that managers can schedule and maintain production. They are the unsung heroes, the backbone of the team and the organisation, keeping it solid and reliable. Losing possession of the ball and an advancing attack (a production loss) must be overturned by the defenders who get the plant going to ensure continuity.

The metaphor can be extended to construction sites where the forwards are the contractors’ work crews who are building the plant. The midfield comprises the planners, engineers and construction managers who schedule and coordinate the works – they keep the machine moving. The defensive line is made up of the procurement, logistics and HR teams ensuring people and materials are always available. These resources are used by the construction teams who provide them to the contractors to build the project to the expected quality, on time and in budget.

The team manager should be sat at the side of the football field. Their role is to watch the game, develop and implement strategy, but not to be involved directly in the play. This is similar to the general manager (GM) or project director (PD) post. When the GM or PD gets drawn into the game they lose the breadth of perspective required of their senior roles. It may be a challenge to restrain themselves from rushing onto the field and playing the game when they (believe they) have more experience than the players on the field, but it is vital that they stay off the pitch and let the players perform, learn and grow.

So, where is the safety team? They are the last line of defence: the goalkeeper. They stand as the last bastion between something going wrong and causing harm. They are mostly independent of the play that’s going on in front of them. Safety is a critical friend to the rest of the team who helps them by looking over their shoulders and shouting early warnings.

We’ve all heard that “safety is everybody’s responsibility” and in this analogy the team, the ten outfield players, all need to play and perform with safety in mind. A famous English football manager, Brian Clough, once said: “The greatest offence in football is to give the ball to the opposition.” A loose ball that goes to the other team is similar to an act that is unplanned or potentially harmful. To ensure that the team performs at its highest level and does not become vulnerable it needs to make certain that safety is integrated into all of its playing formations and processes. 

The top sports teams train and practice the same moves over and over so that when it comes time to execution they know how to do it and do so in a professional, confident and predictable manner. The same should happen in a production process or construction site with the outfield players practising and rehearsing how they will do the job to ensure that they do it in a safe, healthy and environmentally responsible manner. 

Loose balls, which are akin to working outside of standard operating procedures, should not be the modus operandi and the team should all run in formation knowing their positions and how to behave safely. In this way there are ten players (91% of the shift team) actively embodying safety as part of the day job. This is very different to the too common approach of ten players performing without considering safety and expecting the goalkeeper, the other 9%, to secure the whole team’s safety. 

The way teams win European championships is with 91% of the players focused all the time on how to perform professionally – every pass counts – supported by an additional, independent, extra 9% to help them if they slip up under extreme pressure.

Let’s extend the analogy a little further and ask what the consequence is when the goalkeeper – the safety team – plays out of position and is drawn into the day-to-day operations of the site. Safety practitioners are often asked to sign permits to work, do minor maintenance – such as checking fire extinguishers – or take responsibility for housekeeping and security. These tasks are all core responsibilities of the O&M and logistics teams. When the safety team is distracted by these tasks then the goal is no longer protected, as your last line of defence is preoccupied. If your goalkeeper is playing in the midfield or frontline then they are no longer independent nor have the clarity of being the critical friend. The result is that you more likely to let in soft and own goals.

If we play as uncoordinated, undertrained and ill-disciplined individuals who expect others to save them, we will always be chaotic and vulnerable to the unexpected. But if we play in formation as a united team with everyone being safe and responsible, then we all win and go home healthy and glowing with success. Let’s make safety a team sport.


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  • i cant take stuff like this

    Permalink Submitted by steve paul on 17 August 2016 - 03:01 pm

    i cant take stuff like this seriously

  • the author has never it seems

    Permalink Submitted by steve paul on 17 August 2016 - 03:21 pm

    the author has never it seems actually been to watch a class premier league team. Cast your mind back to camp nou barcelona may 1999. we didnt win that by playing safe in the last 2 minutes.

  • Good read

    Permalink Submitted by Michael du Plessis on 24 August 2016 - 12:42 pm

    Good read

  • I find this article a nice

    Permalink Submitted by Pete Scott on 24 August 2016 - 11:42 pm

    I find this article a nice read with a different use of team work. :)

  • Terrible. Very contrived.

    Permalink Submitted by safetylady on 28 August 2016 - 02:32 pm

    Terrible. Very contrived.
    Safety are the last bastion, stopping things going wrong? Minor maintenance? Signing permits?
    I have been in the wrong job for 30 years . .
    I thought the article was going to put the safety role in as team coach. But then none of the other roles seemed to work either. Foul.

  • I think this is a great way

    Permalink Submitted by tim eele on 31 August 2016 - 04:40 pm

    I think this is a great way of getting the message across that all of the team have a part to play in creating that safety culture where everyone goes home in the same condition that they arrived to work in

  • Football is a major part of

    Permalink Submitted by Mark on 5 September 2016 - 11:06 am

    Football is a major part of our office banter and social activities so thank you for giving me an angle that the managers could be able to relate too.
    Saying that they all think they are the best footballing managers in the country (Monday mornings after analysing the weekends premier league matches) so i will know doubt have variations on your formation like where's the diamond formation or sweeper, ha ha!

  • Like the article - neatly

    Permalink Submitted by Chris Dutton on 6 September 2016 - 10:07 am

    Like the article - neatly summarised!


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