Safety as imagined

How do health and safety people perceive their function?

Safety as imagined
Dave Rebbitt

In the world of health and safety, we sometimes talk about the work of academics, coining the phrase “work as imagined and work as done.”

That phrase articulates an important concept. We often imagine things are going well somewhere and everything is being done according to plan. When we visit that place, we find that things are not so simple as we would hope, and see people deviating from established expectations and procedures.

We often point to this drift, as Rasmussen put it, to be a cause of incidents.

I recently heard some people talking about High Reliability Organizations (HROs) and Human Organizational Performance (HOP). Safety culture even came up. These are all very interesting theories and are useful to us in the health and safety realm.

The primary issue between theory and practice is operationalizing a theory or idea into something that will work consistently in most places. I say that because there’s nothing that works all the time, everywhere.

I see these theories are organizational, even though some do not see them that way.

These theories talk about how organizations approach safety or even how they perceive health and safety or the health and safety function.

This got me thinking about how health and safety people perceive their function and how that might be colored by these theories.

For example, using these theories to approach safety may help the company be safer. However, that is often not a decision made by a health and safety advisor or even a manager. Those sorts of strategic decisions are made at the senior level of the company.

That doesn’t stop all safety people from being interested in these theories that certainly seem like they can offer a partial solution to improving workplace safety. That might be the crux of the issue.

Safety as imagined

In a room full of safety people, the talk will invariably turn towards things like system thinking, safety culture, and even human organizational performance. That can lead to some stimulating conversations, but it also of creates this seductive picture that the health and safety advisor can somehow shift the thinking in their company or somehow implement bold new initiatives to improve workplace safety. We imagine that health and safety professionals will dictate to employers what should be done and how safety should be executed, embracing the bold new theories.

That is not exactly how things actually work. Companies hire health and safety professionals, and they tell them what their job is. They tell them what to do and when to do it. They expect them to follow the status quo, changes means minor changes even if they say big improvements are what they expect. That gives rise to a bit of conflict, at least within the health and safety professionals.

Many have seen this firsthand, trying to “champion a total safety culture” and even throw that term around. That doesn’t mean the company will suddenly change the way it does business or conducts its operations. It doesn’t matter how good the slogan or logo is. Not even how many caps, jackets, and mugs get given away. It simply is impossible for the health and safety department to shift a company’s culture. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t called sustainable safety culture.

We have this safety as imagined role where the health and safety professional is being a change agent and improving workplace safety through some concepts that are really just ideas and theories and aren’t really operationalized in a way that can simply be implemented.

Let’s face it, safety two, safety differently, HRO, HOP are not new ideas. In fact, they are time-tested good leadership and management approaches.

There’s been some talk in the last decade about evidence-based safety. I think that’s great, and a lot of that is talking about how some of these interesting theories might be operationalized or how they could make a difference in the workplace. However, nothing works everywhere, or all the time.

People in the health and safety profession are often looking for something better. A better way to improve health and safety performance – depending on how you measure that. That gives us a great example.

A few years back, General Motors said they wouldn’t use the standard safety metrics anymore. Many people in health and safety have long recognized that injury rates are no indicator of health and safety performance. The problem is - what replaces that? General Motors in 2021 measures its safety performance primarily with - injury rates. The point here is that changing something so fundamental is risky.

We like to imagine that the health and safety person has real authority and credibility, letting them change the workplace to improve performance by embracing the latest theories and evidence-based practices to move the company towards a safer approach.

Safety as done

Should the health and safety professionals be the ones trying to implement these theories or operationalize them in companies? Do they even have the authority or the resources? What if the company doesn’t want to change?

Companies are complex organisms, and, like people, they really don’t like change a lot. The attempt to embrace these theories may be what causes those in the C Suite to accuse the health and safety of being engaged in the flavor of the quarter or the flavor of the month. I always say change is great - unless it’s happening to you.

Health and safety professionals may try to change an organization or impose a new way of doing things. That effort is very often doomed to fail because they imagine that this is something that will work. They imagine this is something that the company and its employees want. Of course, one of the big issues is that very few people have the required expertise to take that theory and put it into practice effectively and sustainably. That’s not a skill set that health and safety professionals would normally have.

We end up with safety as done. In that, there are two kinds of employers. Those who believe that health and safety professionals should facilitate safety, and those who think that health and safety professionals should do safety.

Facilitating safety just means ensuring that the safety program or management system is supported and operating properly. There is enough information being gathered through feedback to ensure that the processes function.

Doing safety is where the health and safety professional is expected to do the inspections, chair the safety committee, do all the incident investigations, and lead all the safety meetings.

Safety as imagined proposes that health and safety professionals choose their own duties, chart their own path, and have a free hand. That may be true in some places, but not in most.

Safety, as done, involves a company creating a job description of what they expect the new hire to do. Strangely enough, that is exactly what they expect them to do. In the case of health and safety advisors, that means delivering or facilitating the health and safety program or system. Those job descriptions don’t include anything about reshaping the company or its culture. They certainly don’t include anything about holding employees accountable and pushing the company out of its comfort zone.

We end up with a disconnect. We have health and safety people being taught that they can change an organization’s culture implement these very interesting theories, and really affect how a company operates.

As a senior manager, I can imagine if someone came up to me and told me that. They would leave very disappointed.

Getting it done

Health and safety professionals need to lift their eyes to the horizon and look ahead. But should we be looking for interesting theories and quick solutions? After all, a big part of the job is anticipating risk and mitigating that risk.

Maybe it’s not the horizon we’re looking at all. Perhaps we’re looking high into the sky, stargazing. You can miss a lot that way.

Should health and safety professionals be chasing after theories or concentrating on honing their craft? Concentrating on improving their skills would add value in almost any circumstance. Perhaps they should be looking for ways to make the health and safety system or program more user-friendly.

Health and safety professionals have long been accused of being the identifiers of problems. The alarmists of non-compliance, or the doomsayers of regulatory action.

I know from experience that no senior manager wants those kinds of health and safety people. Perhaps health and safety professionals need to concentrate more on being providers of solutions, the streamliners of processes, and demonstrators of value.

That is the way of the professional. New theories are interesting and promote really good discussion. They may even lead to some improvements in the company’s existing health and safety system. What they don’t do is define professionals or make them better at the job the company has given them to do.

That means looking inward and becoming the professionals that companies hope we are striving to be.