I have recently been a privileged participant and observer at some safety and health awards events. At one, IOSH’s president presented individual fellowships and recognised signal contributions by a number of practitioners.
The reputation of awards ceremonies is mixed – they are sometimes denigrated as the “rubber chicken circuit” – which was originally the view of the late backbench MP Julian Critchley on party constituency dinners. But awards are also hard-fought for by individuals, and companies make significant efforts to secure them.
Perhaps the “rubber chicken” complainants focus too much on the awards dinners themselves, those traditional, periodic and in some ways old-fashioned gatherings often with men in black tie and women in evening dress listening (perhaps) to speeches.
In fact, far from being out of date, awards represent the most modern and far-seeing approach to driving towards better workplace performance.
There are still many workplaces that hold monthly safety and health meetings, often referred to as safety committees, during which the focus of discussion is almost exclusively on recent incidents – either actual harm-causing happenings or the wide range of what we call near-misses.
Perhaps the ‘rubber chicken’ complainants focus too much on the awards dinners
Another favourite topic is inspection and audit reports that form depressing lists of non-compliances even if they are dressed up as exciting and valuable opportunities for improvement.
Almost all the discussion is about failure, actual or potential, and what will be done to make matters better. This then flows upwards, when the board insists on receiving direct reports on serious accidents, not least to demonstrate the centrality of health and safety to directors, and agonises over the accident frequency rate.
And yet most of the time most people do their work without coming to harm. Is this just irrelevant, the result of unreliable good luck? Recent discussions among safety and health practitioners have been illuminated by arguments about doing safety differently, focusing not on the occasional lapses and problems that give rise to accidents but instead looking more closely at how and why most people survive each working day without incident.
This is no radical new departure; day-to-day safety and healthy performance is precisely what awards are there to evaluate, recognise and reward. Ever since behavioural science demonstrated that reinforcing what people are doing right is much more effective than castigating those who get it wrong, awards have not just been a little gilt on the gingerbread but underline what we all need to do to achieve high performance.
While this isn’t all about penguin-suited diners politely applauding colleagues, reward and recognition includes simply noticing good work and saying “thank you”. The formal awards events encourage us all to look for safe and healthy working and to celebrate it.
It is nice to know, as the best leaders do, that, as we raise another glass of wine to toast a worthy winner, celebrating success has been proven to be one of the best ways to ensure that we enjoy more of it.