Workplace safety is a philosophy, not a technocratic exercise

Ben Walker reviews the remarkable collection of essays gets that right

For a guy who has spent much of his working life on a newsdesk, I’ve had my fair share of workplace accidents. I’ve cut myself with a scalpel when mounting artwork. I’ve fallen over a sandwich board while entertaining clients. When I was 18, I worked a summer job in a supermarket and found myself under a delivery cage containing 400lbs of fruit. The accidents varied in nature. Yet the process for handling them was always the same: fix him up. Write it in the book.

Years later, when I trained to be an official first-aider for a medium-sized firm, I was in charge of the accident book. Whenever a colleague had an accident (again, they were more common than you might think) I was the guy writing in the book. I don’t know if anyone but me ever read that book: I suspect managers and leaders rarely do. But that is the way workplace safety is usually ‘managed’. In the book. By the book.

Workplace safety is too often bogged down in bureaucracy. The corporate safety handbook has become the stuff of infamy: construct a 500-page tome and expect employees to read it and comprehend it. As George Bernard Shaw once had it: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

There is a better way. With his book One Percent Safer, Professor Andrew Sharman, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, set out to break the mould. When fielding essays from the world’s finest leadership experts, commentators, safety practitioners and philosophers, he asked for a maximum of 500 words apiece.

“If you want to ensure your people go home without harm every day, you’ll need to maintain a deep distaste for waffle, push back against vagueness, and you’ll need to sort the intellectual wheat from the chaff,” Sharman writes. “It’s too easy to write a book of 300 pages… Many of the earlier contributors to this book baulked at the notion of a 500-word chapter. Several turned in contributions of multiple pages, thousands of words, only to be gently encouraged to try, try and try again.”

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us much at all, it is that managing risk is nonbinary. Were we determined to remove all chance of ever catching Covid-19, influenza or the common cold, we would refuse to ever leave our house for any reason. Yet man and woman cannot live on delivered bread alone. There are severe consequences for such a hermitic lifestyle: not least the threat to our economic wellbeing; our mental health; our human need to see others and breathe our environment.

One Percent Safer rejects the idea that safety can either be achieved or failed: that a miss is a mile. Corporations state their goal as zero accidents, yet One Percent Safer shows what might be accomplished were we to reduce workplace accidents worldwide by just 1%. Some 2.78 million died at work last year. A 1% reduction would save the lives of 28,000 people annually.

In his essay, One Percent Safer contributor and business coach Andrew Barrett implores leaders to “follow the elephants” – to concentrate on minimizing the greatest workplace risks – while empowering and entrusting employees to tackle the “mice”, the smaller pitfalls that we encounter every day.

Meanwhile, the incisive business journalist Sally Percy argues against ending all city life, as some have advocated, but points out that crowds are bad for us. Why, she asks, don’t we revolutionize the working week so people can flex their hours? It is time we made rush hour a thing of the past.

The libertarian humanist Dr Frank Furedi has interesting thoughts about bringing about a culture of prudence, exhorting people to live their lives safely through hope and reason, rather than fearfulness about what lurks around the corner.

The former chief executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management Phil James and the great leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith come to their view from a different place: James through his thoughtful position that organizations are inherently chaotic; Goldsmith via his view that leaders try too much to tell and too little to listen. Yet they land four-square together: leadership is relational, not rational. Safety will be more readily improved by talking to your people and asking them about risk. “This will power more change than the best suggestion scheme or communication campaign that sets out the objective facts about risks to health,” writes James.

Not all the essayists agree with each other; there are gentle conflicts within the book. Yet this diversity is a feature, not a bug. The work is pulled together by the idea that safety is, or should be, an overarching philosophy and not a technocratic discipline delegated to – as Professor Stian Antonsen writes – “nowhere men”, managers who are detached from the operation of organizations.

Workers, as Dr Todd Conklin writes, are not the problem to be fixed, they are the solution to be understood. Tear up the old handbook. This remarkable compendium asks not that safety is something that leaders lead others to do, but that everyone can lead each other towards.

––– Ben Walker is editor-at-large of Dialogue