Employees a barometer of safety says HSE chair

Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, has pinpointed employees at the coalface as the barometer against which to measure the effectiveness of a safety culture.

Ms Hackitt said strong leadership atop any business was key to unlocking a safer environment, but cautioned that the way such messages played out on the ground always remained the game-changer.

“I’ve recently visited a number of different companies in the UK and the Middle East and seen extraordinary levels of commitment and dedication in getting health and safety right,” she said in her regular blog column on the HSE’s website.

“These businesses strive to create the right culture – leading from the top with all workers understanding the role they play in ensuring everyone goes home safe at the end of the working day.”

Ms Hackitt added: “I was recently asked how I knew when a proper safety culture is embedded in an organisation. There is no simple answer but one way of testing is to ask the workforce.”

The safety expert said “all too often” senior managers were convinced they had “first class systems in place” when, in reality, they weren’t fully understood and complied with by all staff.

“Talk to those same staff,” she writes, “and you may hear a different story, a story of managers prepared to turn a blind eye to safety shortcuts when there is pressure on production, or of procedures that simply don’t reflect the reality of the job or established practices.”

Golden rules set the culture

“While overseas, I recently saw an admirable attempt to communicate the key safety messages by the use of a “10 Simple Golden Rules for Safety” poster. Or at least, I thought it was until I got about halfway down the list of rules and came across this: ‘Always seek authorisation before bypassing safety systems’.”

This rule, she considered, implied it was “okay to bypass safety systems as long as you have permission”.

Such messaging created a “completely wrong culture within the organisation”.

Ms Hackitt continued: “I didn’t know how many times such bypassing of systems had taken place but I did ask them to take a long hard look at this so called golden rule and think about whether the message they actually intended is being conveyed to workers.

“In truly exceptional circumstances it may be necessary to bypass a system but only after careful thought, proper risk assessment, good communication to everyone who is likely to be affected, and the full details of the exception process can be authorised by competent people. Bypassing the system must be a ‘big deal’ not something that’s “Ok as long as you get permission.”

Ms Hackitt finished by calling on senior managers to ask themselves how confident they are that all “of your rules mean the same to your audience as you intended?”

For more information visit Judith Hackitt’s blog

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