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Peter Turner MA (law), P.G.D, Eng (Hons), CMIOSH

ISO 45001 to Bridge the Leadership Gap

October 2017

Whatever you read, and whoever you speak to, the importance of Senior Managers and leadership for creating a successful health and safety culture is fundamental. So it begs the question why do we keep on having to say it?

It is only too apparent that in many organisations, public and private sector, Senior Managers struggle to effectively engage with health and safety.

Many organisations lie on a spectrum between total disengagement with health and safety where responsibility is seen as resting entirely with a safety specialist/team, compared to where Senior Managers inappropriately compete with the Safety Specialist in day-to-day management.

Leadership and Management

Leadership and management have distinct qualities: leaders are visionary and inspirational while managers execute the vision. As safety professionals, we will often switch between the two roles.

Leadership and management also have distinct roles in an organisation which is very complimentary; the relationship between a truly inspirational leader and their management team is a partnership of trust based on a common understanding of need and purpose.

When my family go on holiday I am brilliant at suggesting exciting new destinations to meet the whole family’s aspirations, but it’s my wife who actually organises the family to get us there. However what makes it work is that we both agree on the destination before getting in the car.

In the same way, inspirational and committed Senior Managers cannot deliver their aspirations without competent, adequately resourced safety specialists; similarly, competent safety functions cannot achieve their objectives without the backing of committed Senior Managers, particularly if they have different ideas about what the objectives should be.

It’s so obvious, and yet all too often lacking.

Senior Managers and Safety Managers Working Together

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Senior Managers are disinterested or uncaring, of course, that can happen, but they are a minority. The issue is more often that Senior Managers and their Safety Managers fail to take the time to discuss and keep on discussing how their relationship should work.

Senior Managers can feel uncomfortable about safety and either shy away or overcompensate. It has surprised me how many times I have been asked (and refused) to provide Senior Managers with a list of questions they can ask staff when visiting sites. If safety is truly being led from the top surely conversations about safety should be the most natural, and easiest of all?

Perhaps that’s partly our fault as “the safety professional”. We can make the subject seem dry, legalistic and technical; with our qualifications and ‘badges of office’, we give the impression that other, lesser mortals can’t play. That’s just not true, and where leadership must kick in.

Human Factors Come into Play

In truth, some of our greatest endeavours are the result of an inspirational leader, teacher, manager or friend. So what makes them inspirational? Belief, passion, honesty? When the chips are down, they are prepared to take the pain for those beliefs. You don’t get that from an analysis of some aspect of the law, well, not very often. If this is starting to sound more like marriage guidance than safety advice, well perhaps that’s no surprise. If the human factors' aspect of safety has taught us anything over the past few years it’s that relationships whether personal or professional are critical factors in affecting behaviour in the workplace.

But if that’s sounding too soft, ultimately businesses need to “unite” relationships and business systems. Safety isn’t the only consideration for a Senior Manager and they will have many roles to assume. It’s easy to see how a Senior Manager can become over-reliant on their Safety Manager assuming full responsibility for safety and in turn the Senior Manager ignores his own complimentary role as a visionary leader.

Bring on the new ISO 45001

This leads nicely onto the long-awaited arrival of the ISO 45001 Health and Safety Management standard. This standard which will replace OHSAS 18001 standards, possibly in October 2017 could be a game changer, at least for those companies who sign up to it.

Whilst Senior Management commitment has always been a part of the management standards, it has been a rather mechanical job. Typically the MD would sign off the policy, perhaps set a few, often arbitrary, goals, (what about zero accidents for example?!!) and then delegate everything to the Safety Manager. But the 2015 versions of the quality and environmental standards, which ISO 45001 is expected to mimic, requires a much greater involvement of Senior Managers.

Impact of ISO 45001 on the Senior Manager’s Role

In particular, ISO 45001 standards require organisations to carry out a review of the business context. Essentially it is a high-level risk assessment to determine what pressures are on the organisation now and in the future, what they really want and need, and how to effectively position health and safety.

Then as a result of the review of the business context, it’s the Senior Managers that set the realistic objectives to provide the resources required to achieve them and establish the types of information and frequency fed back, in order for them to understand the real progress achieved.

This standard, therefore, differentiates and supports the roles of leadership and management: it forces a dialogue, creates a common understanding of roles, objectives, and the tools required to deliver them. Talking about complimentary relationships it’s a marriage guidance counsellor’s dream! Well, that’s my hope at least!

ISO 45001 is going to be big, and if it can help organisations of all shapes and sizes to bridge the leadership gap it will also be beautiful. I would encourage all organisations to seriously find out more and plan to get on board with ISO 45001. Bring it on!!

Are you in a senior management position and want to improve your knowledge of health and safety? Click below to view the IOSH Safety for Executives and Directors! 

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