Francois Barton: Health and safety – it's not just red tape

George Adams, chairman of the Business Leaders Health & Safety Forum (right), chats to forester Dan Gaddum about ...


George Adams, chairman of the Business Leaders Health & Safety Forum (right), chats to forester Dan Gaddum about improvements in his industry.

OPINION: Throwing health and safety into the “red-tape” basket seems to be a national sport of late.

There has been much commentary lamenting its drain on management and board resources, deflecting precious time from getting on with the “real business”‘ of running a company.

But this misses the point. Health and safety is “real business” and its benefits go far beyond preventing paper cuts, or much worse.

Francois Barton:

Francois Barton: “We need to move beyond the “health and safety is red tape” mentality and build our competence and confidence accordingly.”

Indeed, many of New Zealand’s more progressive companies, both large and small, are embracing health and safety as a key pillar of their business operations and reaping the benefits.

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In addition to not having to visit the family of an injured or killed staff member, there are several benefits of an engaged approach to health and safety.

They include improved staff engagement, improved productivity through reduced lost staff time and equipment damage, enhanced business reputation, clearer and strengthened supplier relationships, as well as improved and more effective operational planning.

Capable boards and executives focus on how to build and grow good businesses.  They probe and then act on a range of issues, from financial management to digital innovation, environmental performance to the health and safety of their people.

Smart businesses know that almost all of these issues involve an element of regulation – they do not just throw it straight into the “red tape” basket.  

They challenge themselves and their people to look across their business and ask, what are we doing to ensure our business is a success for our people and our clients today and into the future?

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Some recent media commentary reflects why too many businesses are still missing the mark on workplace health and safety, echoing a narrow and frustrated view focused exclusively on the compliance burden.

It is easy to frame health and safety as a slow-moving target, “clogging” the management and board agenda, squeezing out time to discuss longer term strategic plans.

But this has more to do with broader director and executive capability and maturity than health and safety itself.

Ethical investment is sweeping the world, with consumers increasingly interested in sustainability, a core tenant of which is how we treat our people.

Domestically there is increased social expectation that people return from work healthy, safe and well.  

If we are to respond to those market and social demands, we need to move beyond the “health and safety is red tape” mentality and build our competence and confidence accordingly. 

Making health and safety happen is not an administrative task, nor one that gets done once and then gets parked.  

Making it happen and making it stick sits at the top table.  It requires leaders to exercise curiosity about their organisations, the confidence to keep asking questions and the competence to prioritise the investment of time, effort and resources in the areas that will make a difference, not “tick a box”.

Encouragingly, this shift is already growing momentum.  An increasing number of directors and executives from organisations, large and small, appreciate running a profitable and successful business means running a business that is healthy and safe for its people and clients.

A chief executive of a regionally-based business recently made a significant investment in improving his organisation’s health and safety performance after a workplace tragedy.  

A year into the change, one of his operational managers challenged him that “surely we’ve done this safety stuff now, when is it time to get back to business?”.  

The chief executive simply responded that if the manager was sick of focusing of health and safety, he was sick of working in the business.

Another CEO outlined how the firm worked with its supply chain to identify where the biggest health and safety risks were, and to agree the roles and responsibilities to manage those risks while getting the daily work done.  

Not only did this manage a key health and safety responsibility, it also resulted in a new relationship approach that is paying dividends far beyond health and safety.

It has meant that there are now common and shared approaches across the business on how they work with suppliers in all regards, not just health and safety.

Given the importance of effective, stable and sustainable supplier relationships in the modern business world, this approach has delivered a real strategic advantage.

These leaders understand that a key part of running a successful business is creating the right environment for productive, healthy and safe work to happen.

In practice, this means understanding and then managing a business’ critical risks (not paper cuts).

It means ensuring strong relationships are in place to engage and enlist the workforce and supply chain partners.  And it means ensuring you have the right people, tools and systems.

We get the business performance we deserve. How we think, talk about and act on health and safety will impact that performance.

If you want compliance costs, keep focused on red tape. If you want to reap the benefits, change the discussion and where you focus your attention.

Francois Barton is executive director of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, a coalition committed to improving workplace health and safety.

 – Stuff

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