Doing it for the right reasons
There are several ways an organisation can improve the effectiveness of its health and safety representatives
According to Section 17 of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, companies are required to appoint a number of safety, health and environment (SHE) representatives according to the number of employees in the workplace. Some companies still approach this with a “tick box” attitude; that is, in terms of a legal requirement only.
Without support from management, the appointed SHE representatives are not motivated to do more than the bare minimum. As a result, companies risk a focus on the quantity (meeting legislative requirements) and not on the quality of the efforts.
This management style insults the broader SHE programmes and suggests to employees that management is worried more about receiving a certificate than the genuine health and safety of employees and contractors.
Obtaining maximum benefit
A company with one thousand employees, for example, would need to appoint approximately 20 employees as SHE representatives. It could either pay them to tick boxes, or motivate them to be proactively involved in the overall SHE programme.
In this example, the company has an additional 20 pairs of eyes on the shop floor that can assist in the drive for a safe and healthy working environment, thereby preventing incidents and injuries.
However, to do so management must invest time and effort into developing these employees.
Training and development
Many companies provide training courses for SHE representatives, to ensure they understand their functions and roles under the requirements of the OHS Act.
The content of this training should go beyond simply the legal requirements. A focused training programme (of theoretical and practical training followed by regular coaching) will help to improve their understanding of the company and the site-specific requirements.
It’s more than just inspections
Typically, the primary function of SHE representatives is to conduct inspections of the working areas at pre-defined frequencies, complete and submit reports, and report findings at health and safety committee meetings.
SHE representatives should, however, also be trained in the various elements of risk management and the art of engaging with employees and contractors on all SHE-related matters.
The training programme should include how to identify safety, health and environmental hazards in the workplace, and provide a better understanding of the site-specific methodology for conducting risk assessments. This should include active participation in risk-assessment sessions on the shop floor. By doing so, the quality of overall inspections should improve.
Although a reactive control, the company’s methodology for investigating incidents, combined with the various techniques available, should be included in training programmes.
Understanding the fundamentals of an effective “permit to work” is always a good place to start when embarking on an audit. It facilitates an understanding of the task, the associated hazards and what controls may be necessary.
A permit to work is the last control implemented prior to the work commencing, and therefore it makes sense that SHE representatives need to be well versed in the fundamentals of a good-quality permit to work and audit checks.
Employee and contractor engagement
Talking to people throughout the company is key in the drive to developing an interdependent safety culture. Everyone has a responsibility to look after their own safety as well as the safety of others.
In support of this, leaders should train employees and contractors to conduct behavioural observations, and on the fundamentals of engaging with employees and contractors.
This should include the following six-step process to behavioural auditing:
• Observing before approaching;
• Introduction and purpose of the observation session;
• Commenting on positive issues;
• Discussing concerns and barriers;
• Agreeing on safe methods of doing the task;
• Thanking the person for his/her time.
Continuous development and encouragement
SHE representatives are nominated to the position. Leaders therefore have a responsibility to support and encourage their professional development and ability to deliver. Through training, development and recognition, SHE representatives are more likely to enjoy and excel in their elected role, and progress to SHE professional status.
Developing relevant materials
Finally, to make the role of a SHE representative more relevant and value adding, it is suggested that companies develop their own site-specific SHE checklist and audit documents. Customised checklists ensure that people focus only on the issues that are specific to the site and area of responsibility, ultimately ensuring a more relevant audit.
Legal compliance is a minimum requirement. As leaders, we have a responsibility to move beyond this and to implement programmes that actively contribute to ensuring that we send everybody home safely, each and every day.
It’s fair to say that most companies share the objective of providing a safe and healthy working environment. What many fail to do, though, is use SHE representatives as a critical cog in the wheel of safety culture.
In South Africa, we are fortunate that the appointment of SHE representatives is a legal requirement. By moving beyond just compliance and instead maximising the benefits to companies, leaders should actively support SHE representatives in delivering against their mandate.
This can be achieved through three key areas of intervention: training and coaching; identifying those with potential and interest; and ensuring their ongoing professional development.
Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Brian started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, Brian transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.