Missed opportunity for making the business case on safety culture

Cover of HSL culture documentRecently the UK’s Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) released its second white paper on safety culture.  This paper is called “Making the Case for Culture” and outlines the three arguments for a workplace safety culture – legal, moral and financial – from which a safety business case can be built.  Financial seems to get the most attention but this is perhaps because it is the element that is argued the least and the one that can get the greatest attention from company executives.

The document seems a little thin but it could be put that the simplicity of the presentation in a booklet designed to provide safety culture guidance is an advantage.  It could also be argued that it is primarily a promotional pamphlet for the HSL’s very useful safety climate tool .

The legal case should need little explanation because the readers of a safety climate document are almost certainly well aware of the OHS laws and their obligations.

The moral argument deserves more attention than this paper offers. The paper states that:

“A civilised society operates on the basis that all members have a moral duty not to kill or do harm to others.”

This statement alone is enough to generate a philosophical debate on individual and workplace safety yet there is no further reading recommended on this moral argument.  Even a link to a webpage of documents that discuss the morality of a “civilised society” in relation to occupational health and safety would have helped.  There could have been a terrific discussion on the OHS immorality of a capitalist society but there’s a thesis by itself.

The moral position is further weakened by including the “total costs to society of work-related injuries” in monetary terms.  The paper talks about the social burden but the monetary estimates of societal costs should have been left to the next chapter – Financial.

It is here that the paper provides the most benefit by providing good simple arguments such as the following:

  • It helps to reduce accidents
  • It’s good for your bottom line!
  • It helps you to win business
  • It helps you to put a number on safety
  • It helps you target your resources more cost-effectively
  • It engages your workforce

This argument has some authority simply by being issued through the Health and Safety Laboratory. The elements listed above would still require a lot of work and research to make the financial argument to one’s own employer and this could be extremely difficult if the source of the economic information comes is the person who is also the one who needs convincing of the benefits of improving the safety climate.

The document’s validity declines in the last few pages which include details on the Safety Climate Tool, as if this is the only measure that could achieve the outcomes desired.  The Safety Climate Tool also gets a full-page testimonial from a user and it is this more than anything that renders this white paper as primarily a sales brochure.

White papers have an inherent authority because of the significance given to government publications but it is clear that white papers have now become little more than a marketing tool.  This is disappointing and, in the case of this paper from HSL, confusing because the HSL is an agency of the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive.  There are echoes here with the evolution of SafetyMAP, a simple management system audit tool developed within WorkSafe Victoria that developed its own commercial existence.

There is a need for a simple and basic outline of why occupational health and safety is required.  Most OHS professionals jump past this need as we see OHS as a given, an essential element of business and society that cannot be argued against.  Yet there are always sections of society that need the obvious to be explained and it is likely that such an explanation may uncover weaknesses or assumptions that need further research.

Clearly I am disappointed with the superficiality of “Making the Case for Culture”, a white paper that is more an  advertisement than a document from which one can make a case for  a safety culture.  Perhaps someone can build on the structure of this paper and expand it into a more useful document.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Missed opportunity for making the business case on safety culture”

  1. Perhaps it comes back to the suspicion of any sophisticated ohs/whs systems being an impediment to business practices , caution being viewed as unproductive , the present U.K government removing the \”red tape\” that ohs produces .
    The economic argument for ohs is not developed or promoted to business nor the economic costs on the community by governments and eventually the taxpayer of workers with long term injuries {class one type] being unable to return to pre injury employment the need for specialist treatment ,
    There is an argument that employers who achieve higher standards in their safety systems should receive any preference in tendering from government , carrot and stick .

  2. The purpose for conducting business is to make money. This is true for all businesses as nobody is here to run on charity. Long term benefits of safety can\’t be understood by those in the business, if money can be made by engaging persons in place of the injured, removing the injured from work without caring them for rest of their life, persons responsible are not punished for not ensuring safety. Moral/ethical responsibility, just being humane, is the last factor in consideration as it is the law of jungle that rules the world, where the strongest gets the most. Enforcement of statutes and quick action without sympathy only bring in a good safety culture. Legal compliance alone is still the mantra as voluntary compliance stage is far off.

    1. I think the morality of safety needs more explanation. We have seen a growth in sociologists in the OHS field but no philosophers. Morality can often be seen as \”common sense\” but that just makes it more rife for examination.

      Safety is often seen as sacrificed for profit but the moral mechanics behind this is rarely examined. It\’s time it was.

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