Tristan Meears-White: The trick to building a positive Health and Safety culture

by NOTIFY TECHNOLOGY | Jun 24, 2019 | Blog

In his latest column for Notify, our Subject Matter Expert and Health and Safety legal heavyweight Tris Meears-White takes a look at workplace Health and Safety culture, and how it’s integral across every aspect of your business…

Culture. Sometimes defined as “an evolving set of collective beliefs, values and attitudes”. Those who know, say that it is central to any business and influences management, strategic decisions and all business functions from reception to production. But what about Health and Safety?

One of my current roles has involved me giving this some careful thought.

I’ll give you an example. The creative team want to make an area of the office into a social “break out” space for employees to use during breaks – a laudable idea. They have had a pool table, ping pong tables and a dart board installed but decide it needs an “outdoor” theme to make it more fun, so they decide on a rustic outdoor look which involves pasting artificial grass on the walls and constructing “funky” furniture from some tired old pallets. They have all the materials delivered into the space, where they are left pending the creative process commencing.

Which is what I found. Pallets blocking access and egress routes and adopting the role of potential kindling/fuel for fire safety purposes; rolls of offcut artificial grass with no detail of its origins or spec in a pile under the dartboard.

The point is, this project was devised, approved and underway without any thought at all being given to possible H&S issues or its changes to the fabric of the space. Was it an appropriate location for cutting timber and building furniture? Did it need treating? What was it being covered with (hardboard and carpet)? Was the grass fire-retardant/suitable for indoor use? etc. etc. etc.

That felt to me like a lack of Health and Safety culture at play and gave me some real cause for concern.

So what can you do to change things? 

The HSE and IOSH are agreed that to develop Health and Safety culture, you need to have genuine leadership from those at the top of the business.

Senior management should set the tone and demonstrate their personal commitment to high safety standards. This means being compliant themselves, certainly not having an “I’m a Director, I don’t need to fob in and out every time I come in and leave, do I?” attitude.

The challenge for H&S professionals is not just to get that initial engagement, but to keep it. 

Unfortunately, this is something that needs constant attention; dragging managers on safety walk rounds if need be, making sure that H&S performance is genuinely on the board meeting agenda and properly discussed, providing H&S performance MI/data in a form that is easy to understand and tells them what they need to know. You have to keep leading the horse to water even if you can’t always make it drink.

What else? 

You need to involve everyone. There is so much common sense, creativity and knowledge in organisations; if you can tap into it AND act on the suggestions that are made then tell everyone that you have, then buy-in and compliance are much more likely.

Consulting and involving a workforce in their own Health & Safety is unbelievably important to drive a positive Health & Safety culture. No one individual or a single department or team can develop a positive Health & Safety culture on its own. 

It may not surprise you to hear this, but encouraging the reporting of accidents and “near misses” is essential. Creating an open and honest reporting environment in which communicating unsafe practice is not just encouraged but rewarded – possibly forming part of all employees’ personal objectives – is such a powerful thing.  Again, making it easy for people to do so is critical.

The big problem is many employees see reporting of hazards and incidents as “stepping out of line” – the penalty for which is “having your card marked”. Senior management must ensure this is absolutely not the case and reinforce the message time and again.

How about not just sharing bad news? 

Generally, our reporting on Health & Safety is all about failure, accident numbers, days lost through sickness, RIDDOR reports and non-compliances. It’s a whole load of not great news. 

Why not consider reporting and sharing good ideas, too? A suggestion on a new approach, some positive lessons learned from an incident, the percentage of staff seen wearing PPE (if it’s a high one!) or instances of following the safe practice. Things like this can counter some of the negativity and might help develop a more positive Health and Safety culture which celebrates achievement and good behaviours.

If you want a positive Health & Safety culture, everyone in your organisation needs to understand the Health & Safety standards expected of them and how they can help achieve and maintain those standards. They can only do that if you tell them – again and again, if need be!

Still – we can’t forget that whilst culture is important, it can’t compensate for poor working conditions, unsafe equipment and dangerous work practices. Your workplace, equipment, procedures, as well as your workers’ behaviour, are all ingredients of the safety cocktail. You just need to ensure the mix is right.


This blog was written by Tristan Meears-White, Notify’s resident Subject Matter Expert. Tris is a Health and Safety lawyer hailed as a “key individual” by Chambers UK and a “first-class health and safety lawyer” by Legal 500 2018/2019.