Health and Safety – Is there Untapped Fire in your Organisation?

It’s September 2024 and I’m sat in my armchair reading this great article in a well-known and prestigious health and safety publication.  The article is a success story (I love success stories, don’t you?), and describes how an entire health and safety team transformed the way they communicated, and transformed their company in the process.  What’s the name of the company?  Well, I can’t tell you that right now, but what I can tell you is this – they had a secret recipe!

Health and Safety is an interesting profession.  To be successful at it, in my view, you need to spend fifty per cent of your time on the technical compliance stuff, and the other fifty on communication, engagement, influencing and relationships.  Hang on, fifty percent, that’s an awful lot of time, and you don’t have time to waste, with your ever burgeoning remit! 

But what if it wasn’t a waste?  What if that fifty per cent of your time you spent focused on people, because that’s what it all boils down to, was the fifty per cent that not only got health and safety moving in your organisation, but completely changed the way employees saw health and safety?  What if that fifty per cent people-focus was the thing that blew an entire tornado of fresh air through the negative reaction many people have when they hear those fateful words – health AND safety?

So let me talk you through it.  What did that health and safety team do differently that meant they were celebrated in that well-known magazine in September 2024.  I know, we’re still only in 2023, but bear with me.

First things, first, they thought strategically.  They took a whole company approach to their communication and designed their programme to be both global AND local.  What does this mean?  It means that they set out to discover, through lots of listening and good conversation, what united people, rather than what divided them.  What they ended up with was a one size fits all message, but one that could be applied in all their working environments in different ways, allowing them to address the global versus local dilemma once and for all.

Thinking strategically also meant taking an inside-out rather than outside-in approach, making sure that the global message could be embedded and activated across the many different business processes.  This was important because the team knew that giving employees an extra thing to take on board was only going to work if it became part of what they already did.  It also helped them to make the global message stick and stick around.  In fact, once the team got their health and safety messaging into key processes across the company, it took on a life of its own, which is one reason why they were able to make a difference so quickly.

But there’s much more to this team’s story.  They completely changed their communication mindset.  Realising that they were communicating to create change in the whole company, they stopped moaning about the other parts of the organisation that didn’t see health and safety the way they did, and decided they were going to do whatever it took to get them on board.  They drew up an influence map, sat down with the key influencers, and listened to them intently, so they could find the common ground.  Not only did they have a better understanding of their challenges but were able to help them solve these challenges with the benefit (yes, benefit) of health and safety.  It was no longer win-lose, but win-win!

With strong messaging in place that made health and safety relevant to everyone, and all the company rowing in the same direction, there was one final ingredient remaining in the recipe – transformational leadership.  Yes, it was transformational leadership that showed the team how they needed to communicate to inspire others, and also what they needed from others in their organisation, and particularly their managers and frontline supervisors.  But hang on, transformational leadership is a fancy word.  Isn’t it just management speak?  Do we even know what it means?  Well, how about we demystify it a bit here.  For me, transformational leadership is best understood when we think about how we want people to feel about health and safety, because if people feel good about it, if they are passionate about it, then there is no way they are not going to take action to keep people safe.  They just won’t be able to help themselves. 

And this is a bit how that team felt about it.  The problem was, they weren’t quite sure how to get others feeling that way about it too.

But then all became clear when they discovered this quote by Bob Nelson:

“You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within”.

With these words stuck firmly in their heads, that health and safety team moved away from telling people what to do, and towards asking people what they wanted and needed to make health and safety a success in their area.  Towards what THEIR biggest challenges were, and towards THEIR vision of success, in their workplaces.  And this didn’t just stop at the frontline.  The team asked the same ‘wide open’ and ‘intriguing’ questions of senior leaders, contractors, and many other different groups of influence, and watched for the embers to spark.

But who were that health and safety team whose success story featured in that well-known health and safety magazine in September 2024?

The future is yet to be written, but all of us have the pen.

We just need to follow the secret recipe, tap into the ‘fire’ and see where the story takes us!

Karen J. Hewitt is Director of Leaderlike Ltd, the Health and Safety Engagement experts, creator of the Build, Buzz, Bake® formula for turbocharging cross-company engagement in Health and Safety, and author of the Amazon no. 1 bestselling and award-winning book ‘People Power – Transform your Business in the Era of Safety and Wellbeing’.  For more information, contact