Just like the proverbial horse being led to water, it is all too easy for an OH professional to put safety and health messages out into the workplace, but much harder to get them listened to or acted upon.
However important or relevant such communications may be, ensuring workers and managers are engaged about health and safety messages – some of which may often be quite dry in their content – is an ongoing challenge.
What’s more, even if messages are listened to and, at least initially, acted upon, it is often the case that over time they lose their impact, are forgotten, or people slip back into the way they have always done things.
Then, too, there is the issue of staff turnover. However good a message may be, if the manager who championed it leaves, it is unlikely to have the same impact.
As OH, and workplace health and safety in general, has moved up organisations’ agendas in recent years, so has the importance of how health and safety messages are communicated.
OH professionals can no longer rely on newsletters or occasional briefings to get the message across. They are having to become much more innovative in how they think about communication.
One of the first things to realise in all this, says Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa), is that it’s not so much the message that is important, as where it is landing.
“It is really no good trying to spew out messages about health and safety in an organisation in which there is no strong, vibrant health and safety culture,” he explains.
But how to get there in the first place? Ideally, there needs to be a consultative, participative approach within the organisation. If the company has a command-and-control style of management, it is going to far harder to get engagement and buy-in from the employees.
Making full use of workforce representatives, particularly trade union health and safety reps, is a good idea. But you can also encourage participation and communication on a more micro level, suggests Bibbings.
Examples of this might be getting people to understand the importance of risk assessment or developing a health and safety ‘toolbox’ that workers and managers find easy to use.
Similarly, setting up health and safety talks and suggestion schemes, making sure health and safety is raised in team meetings, and putting together ‘quick response’ health and safety teams, can also help to raise the profile of the health and safety message.
“There is a whole team-culture issue. There needs to be a health and safety culture, one that is shared, understood and appreciated,” says Bibbings.
Within this, how people are trained and educated is just as important as how they receive the message.
Influencing people at induction and then maintaining effective systems of mentoring, coaching and supervision are all good ideas. It is important, too, not just to look at what information you are providing to trainees or newcomers, but what messages are being communicated to the older, more senior employees who are likely to be supervising, training and mentoring them on a day-to-day basis, he argues.
Janis Bowen, UK health and well-being manager at professional services firm KPMG, knows all about the important of the medium as well as the message.
In May, the company won the Rospa Gold Health and Safety Award for its health and well-being programme for the sixth year running.
The award is only given to companies that have achieved a very high standard of health and safety at work over four years. In KPMG’s case, the award was in part recognition of how it has changed its approach to health and safety over the years, particularly in its employee training and communications.
The company, which has 9,500 employees in the UK, has developed two animated characters, George and Hilary, who lead employees through online training videos detailing emergency procedures.
Watching the videos is mandatory, and people receive reminders until they do so. The videos also suggest ways that employees can manage their health on a day-to-day basis.
While George and Hilary may be innovative, they have to be set in the overall context of what the company is doing on OH and health and safety, argues Bowen.
If you don’t get that right, and start to change the culture of your organisation so that the importance of workplace health and safety is recognised, then it is much more likely your message will fall on fallow ground.
The company’s six-strong ‘well-being’ team, which includes OH and is part of the HR function, handles a range of activities, including health assessment, 24-hour GP referrals, and an employee assistance programme (EAP). On the health and safety side, a lot of work is done on areas such as manual handling, stress, driver safety and so on.
Complementing this is a network of about 80 ‘well-being advisers’ around the company – employees or managers with an interest in the issue, who have agreed to go on a two-day residential course to act as eyes and ears on the ground when it comes to issues such as risk assessment.
The advantage of having a network such as this is that you have an automatic database of people at your disposal who you know are likely to be enthusiastic about championing your health and safety messages, says Bowen.
For instance, they are currently helping to run a well-being questionnaire, which asks people about what they eat, how much exercise they take, the length of time they sleep and so on.
“We are getting personalised, confidential reports back, which we put through a traffic light system. If there are many red, we know they have some issues, and we can ask them if they would like to come in for a meeting to do cholesterol and blood checks and offer advice,” she says, stressing that it is purely voluntary.
The response rate at the moment is about 30%, a figure she hopes will rise over time.
Another recent change has been a “reclarifying” of the company’s sickness absence policy, including making return-to-work interviews mandatory.
“Our absence rates are below average, but could still be improved. Our benchmark is seven days a year, and we are lower than that, but we still have pockets where it is higher,” Bowen says.
KPMG is also poised to launch a series of OH workshops for its 150 employees in HR. In a department where there have been a number of changes recently, the company cannot afford to have staff who are not up to speed on the health and safety and OH messages.
So, there is an active culture of promoting health and safety messages and procedures already in place. But Bowen concedes getting the message across has sometimes been a struggle.
“How do we make people do their health and safety training? It is one of those things that people just do not want to do,” she admits.
As the average age of employees in the company is 27, the animated approach was chosen because it was felt it would be remembered better. “We wanted to make health and safety humorous,” she says.
Since launching the initiative, about 84% of staff have now done their health and safety training. There has also been a separate, more in-depth communication package developed for managers, outlining their responsibilities as well as ramming home the general health and safety message.
“We link health and safety with well-being, with stress or workload issues. Over the next few years, we are going to be looking at breakfast workshops and lunchtime interventions,” Bowen adds.
If staff fail to do their health and safety training, e-mail reminders are sent to them every eight weeks. After three reminders, “they get hauled in”, says Bowen.
Yet, while online training has its uses – and has evidently been effective at KPMG – it is important to look at your culture, and whether such an approach is going to be the most effective way to get a message across and remembered, cautions Bibbings.
“It raises the question of whether or not it is an adequate substitute for the real learning process you get between people, and from face-to-face learning,” he says.
Using case studies, or real-life examples that are relevant to the organisation, can be particularly effective, he suggests.
“OH and HR have a big support role, but they should not see themselves as the source of the communication,” Bibbings says.
Within KPMG, certainly, the challenge has been getting people to remember the messages and incorporate them into their day-to-day working, Bowen says.
Making such training mandatory and easily accessible has clearly helped spread the message, as has having champions throughout the company.
But it has also been important to make it clear to managers and employees alike that health and safety and workplace health is taken very seriously at the highest levels in the organisation.
While effective health and safety cannot be imposed only from the top down, it does no harm to be able to show that it is important, and that it will be viewed with disapproval if you don’t take it seriously, agrees Bibbings.
“It needs to be a performance issue that is recognised as important. You need to make sure it is about business success. Health and safety needs to be a key performance indicator,” he argues.
“If people in an organisation do not get the impression that it is important, that it is something that is being taken seriously by senior management, then communication about health and safety can be lost among all the other communications,” he adds.
This is an approach favoured, too, by the Health & Safety Executive. In May, the organisation unveiled a second series of case studies demonstrating the vital role that leadership by board-level directors had to play in health and safety.
Linking your health and safety performance to, say, the overall performance of your department, unit or function, or even to senior management remuneration, can send a powerful message, and will encourage people to sit up and listen, Bibbings explains.
As KPMG has found, creating a health and safety culture has to be as much about linking the issue through to workplace health, and how that is managed, as it is about traditional workplace safety.
“People have to feel that this message is not just being parcelled through the line manager, but something that management has taken on board and internalised and think is important,” Bibbings says.
“There needs to be a line of sight between what they are doing, what their managers are asking them to do, and what the business goals are,” he adds.
Bowen agrees: “It is important to win awards, but there is always more that you can do. And you do need a commitment from the business.”
How to make workers act on the health and safety message
Setting up an award scheme can help to encourage a more health and safety-based approach.
Over the past three years, Hertfordshire Police Force has developed a health and safety risk management action plan, designed to create a healthier and safer culture and reduce accidents and injuries.
Part of this has been the development of a Health & Safety Awards scheme for individuals and departments, sponsored by Hertfordshire Police Authority.
The scheme has been led by the force’s OH nurse, Brenda Griffiths. In June, awards were presented to a number of officers and staff who, it was judged, “had made an outstanding contribution towards creating a safer working environment”.
Initiatives recognised included creating an internet auction website to sell unclaimed property that was causing potentially dangerous storage, and an exhibition to educate staff on the dangers on dealing with vehicle fires.