"Safety Goals, Safety Objectives, but it still makes no difference"

It seems that hardly a day passes without someone emailing or asking me for advice about changing their companies approach to occupational health and safety (OHS). It might be a junior safety officer or a head of OHS who is struggling to get their company to believe in their ideas. I’m sure most safety professionals have experienced the same thing at some point in their career. More often than not, people want you to give them the magic answer to their problems, the single answer that can change them around and put them on the path of being a safety guru and company saviour. Now most of us know that it is not that simple, if it was I would now be a multimillionaire sitting on a tropical island, drinking champagne and eating beluga caviar for breakfast.

To take a company forward it really comes down to vision. An organization must be open to the concept and power behind visioning, if not, sustainable change will never happen. We quite often hear OHS people talking about objectives and targets, reducing accidents and that old chestnut saving on insurance costs.

The point is, without a visioning approach you will definitely struggle to get people aligned with what you are trying to accomplish. Many people have never even heard the term visioning before, but how do you think some of the great companies such as Apple, and Coco Cola, got to where they are today? It was about someone having a vision of what they wanted the company to achieve. If you noticed I said someone having a vision, as it only needs a single visionary to start the ball rolling and passionately drive the enthusiasm needed to make changes.

When an organization needs to move in a new direction or change its way of operating, it needs a visionary leader, this also applies to OHS. This style of leadership is most appropriate when a company’s goal is to move people towards a new set of shared objectives. The leader needs to articulate where a group is going, but not necessarily how it will get there. To achieve the vision we must allow people to participate, and feel free to innovate, experiment, and in some cases take calculated risks.

So what is a vision? For one, it is not as mystical as many people make it out to be. A vision is quite simply painting a clear picture of what success will be at a particular time in the future, and, in the case of OHS, how it will be measured. A great vision has to be inspiring, it needs to get everyone in the organization motivated to come to work. A vision must also be strategically and commercially sound. You have to have a reasonable chance at getting there; never use unrealistic statements such as Zero Harm, Safety First, or Zero accidents etc., as this is often seen as company spiel, rather than a real vision statement that everyone can expire to.

As an OHS professional you need to assess answers to an array of questions such as:

  • What does our organization look like from both an internal and external aspect?

  • How big is the organization and is it intended to grow or expand into other business areas in the near future?

  • What are we famous or respected for, and can it be used as leverage for OHS?

  • How do people who work here feel about their jobs and do they want to change?

  • How does the owner or board of directors feel about the business?

  • What’s my role in it as a OHS professional?

It is also important that we understand to be successful the visioning process needs a clear and defined end for your organization—something that won’t change every time there is an incident or some crazy idea, or safety fad that pops up in the OHS industry. The visionary articulates where we are going, and is supported by strategic planning.

One mistake often made by OHS professionals and company executives is to leap into the comfort zone of setting targets such as accident frequency rates, training courses, and inspections / behavioural observations etc., which is often flawed when it comes to setting a vision for people to aspire to.

Vision statements that offer no inspiration to the employees and offer no difference from that often stated by other organizations are seen as pure marketing statements, and have no true value or credibility with employees. So think twice before you put your faith on statements such Zero Harm, Safety First, because they have already been used beyond saturation point and lost credibility with employees many years ago.

If your organization does not have a OHS vision of where they will be in 2, 5 or 10 years, you need to question if what you’re doing is relevant or appropriate to the overall business strategy.