Reading between the lines

– Posted by Pippa Griffin

So there I was taking a moment to look away from the computer to do a bit of out-of-window ‘stare think’ (as you do), only to see a roadworker applying a new layer of paint to the double yellow lines outside the office.  But, the more I watched, the more concerned I became.  There he was – on a busy road, at the corner of a busy (and almost blind) T-junction, pushing his paint kart along the edge of the road.  He was doing a good job in terms of the lines being straight and even and his speed of progress suggested it wasn’t going to take him very long.  It was the ‘how’ that worried me.  Yes, he had on the hard hat and the high-viz tabard, but that was it.  No cones or other form of barrier to separate himself from the traffic, or pedestrians from him.  There were no warning signs to drivers of a person working in the road, no flashing warning lights, no nothing.  He didn’t look behind him once as he ploughed his painted furrows, nor did he stop at the T-junction and check the traffic before stepping out into the road.  Yet, presumably, he had been trained by someone?  And in not just what he needed to do, but surely the how to do it – and safely – not just for his benefit, but for those walking or driving besides him.

Once outside the safety briefing, had he just chosen to do things his way? Perhaps thinking his process quicker?  And no doubt feeling the pressure of the miles’ worth of double yellow productivity required of him that day?  Had he chosen to take the risks himself, disregarding the caution he must surely have been briefed on?

It made me wonder… An organisation can be as committed on paper to improving health and safety as they like, but unless they truly engage people to understand for themselves why it matters and how it can make a difference, people will still take unnecessary risks.

And how can you – as an organisation – be sure that beyond the safety briefing, the moment employees step out of the office (and literally off the pavement in this case) that the people who represent your business, your brand are doing the right thing?  That they’re doing all they can to keep themselves and others as safe as possible?

We know from our risk management work with global mining corporation Anglo American that helping people to understand the tools at their disposal (such as the ‘hierarchy of controls’) to help keep themselves safe is one thing – but winning hearts and minds, winning buy-in is absolutely critical.  And at all levels – from leadership to the front line.  People need to be clear on why it matters, what can be done differently, and how it makes a difference, so that they can begin to take responsibility for their actions – yes, inside the workplace, but outside it too!  Frontline workers in the mining industry, particularly in southern continents, are notoriously risk tolerant – “mining’s a risky business – that’s how it is” – but these frontline workers are often sole providers to large families, working near and journeying through fragile environments and communities.  The impact of injury – or worse – is felt far and wide.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

The other week, I spent two days with a client team on one of their manufacturing sites – a site with a fair number of significant risks, from huge electrical voltages to some rather nasty acid processes.  We are helping them to further strengthen their approach to health and safety.  Every person I interviewed was passionate about making a difference to the business, about helping and supporting others for the common cause.  They all understood that the changes they were a part of would make their organisation a safer, healthier, better place to work.  It’s hard to believe that any of these people would take unnecessary risks outside the workplace.  Their attitude to risk wasn’t limited to “here in the workplace we have to do Y, but outside it’s OK to do X”.

Mr Double Yellow outside my window was lucky.  Despite the hootings, the too-close-for-comfort drive-bys and often oblivious pedestrians walking in his path, he completed his lines by 4pm and presumably headed off for a brew.  His job was done.  And he no doubt felt he’d done it well.

But what if something had happened?  Would his employees have shown the lawyers the ticked box against his safety training – ‘proof’ that it was his choice not to follow official guidance?  How would his employers have felt, knowing that whatever training they’d given him clearly hadn’t had the desired impact?

How confident are you that your employees are putting into practice what you’ve preached every day?  How confident are you that they have taken the message on board themselves and are doing things differently – not because they’ve been told to, but because they understand why it matters?

How confident are you that your workers are putting safety above productivity?  Even when the pressure’s on?  Is there another way to engage people which really can make a difference?  Well yes, it might not surprise you when I say I believe there is, and that’s because here at BB&A, we’ve helped to make that change, we’ve seen it happen.  We’ve helped to make that difference.  Watching paint dry will never be so pointless again.

Click here to find out more about how we helped Anglo American change attitudes to risk.

What’s your personal attitude towards risk? Take our quick quiz to find out how risk tolerant – or not – you are.