The virtues of collaboration

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH
Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

Peter Drucker is the management guru who is renowned as the man who said, “What gets measured gets managed”. But this wasn’t the only or even best of his aphorisms. “Organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast and dinner” comes to mind when thinking about the potential impact of IOSH’s new strategy for the next five years.

It is heartening that the institution’s programme will have as one of its aims the development of strategic partnerships through collaboration. Working with other people, individually and organisationally, in a spirit of mutual respect and forging partnerships that could improve safety and health anywhere in the world is a virtuous aim. 

When organisations are small they can see clearly the benefits of collaboration but, as they grow, they may reach a point where a sort of tunnel vision creeps in. Thinking that they are large enough to operate wholly independently, they reject alliances to maintain a degree of purity.

But just think if the Breathe Freely campaign, launched by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) to encourage employers first in construction, now also in manufacturing, to manage workplace airborne contamination, had been mainstreamed by IOSH from the beginning. Equally, if IOSH’s excellent No Time to Lose campaign to focus people on the risk of work-related cancer had, from the start, the active participation of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and, again, BOHS.

Dictatorship is sometimes the quickest way to get results but rarely as effective as engaging willing participants

There are plenty of examples of collaboration slowing things down, forcing compromises as various parties lobby to have their specific interest reflected in a joint campaign ­– but this pain is usually worth bearing because, when we work together with others, we can achieve so much more impact than when we operate separately.

This also applies to our workplaces, where even when we know individually exactly what ought to be done, it is often much more productive to take time to develop alliances with colleagues in other teams and departments, modifying the proposed programme to bring as many people on board as possible. Dictatorship is sometimes the quickest way to get results but rarely as effective as engaging willing participants who co-own a project.

Wellbeing programmes and absence management are two areas in which safety practitioners, often as junior partners, can play a positive role in helping their employers to enhance health and minimise time off through illness or injury. Without the sensible, grounded approach of the safety and health advisers, wellbeing efforts can appear as wholly arbitrary exercises disconnected from real work issues, but with care they can reflect the challenges to health in the workplace as well.

At this time of year, asthma, with a logical link to sensitisation and hay fever, is a suitable case in point. A workplace wellbeing initiative on this topic can also take in sensitising dusts and fumes at work, helping people to understand what they can do to protect their lungs at work and outside the workplace as well.

Campaigns can all be framed as solo efforts but, when the opportunities arise, it is so much better to address them collaboratively, as IOSH will increasingly look to do in future. And a culture of working in partnership could last beyond the five-year strategy, becoming “the way we do things around here”, an embedded behavioural trait.

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH

Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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