Preventing the ethical slide

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If a positive workplace safety culture is to flourish, top-level commitment to health and safety must percolate throughout the organisation.

An organisation is much like a body. It has a head and a heart to set a strategy, articulate a vision and establish a certain way of doing things; hands, arms and legs to take action, to create products and wealth; eyes and ears to ensure the business is going in the right direction and respond to opportunities.

Like a body, much of what goes on in an organisation is hard to see, with multiple processes we are barely aware of. Anyone who has ever tried to bring to mind every muscle-action that allows us to walk will understand that. Conscious awareness of such complexity is generally overwhelming and inevitably can land you flat on your back.

So, like a body, an organisation has to operate through a certain set of assumed processes that don’t bear – or require – much reflection. Put another way, subconsciously, even stupid behaviour has a value. However, unlike a body – or individual – an organisation creates much bigger risks that can affect many people, even whole communities or beyond. That is why it is necessary to be conscious of the decisions and actions taken at the micro-level to control any of the associated risks.

I am certain that most people want to behave morally and ethically, but somewhere along the line what started as a top-level commitment can drift and become something very different.  A vision and set of public statements about corporate responsibility doesn’t mean this is being reflected at ground level.

To function effectively organisations have to rely on employees at all levels to follow a set of assumed procedures, and guard against a slide into unethical or even morally dubious behaviour.

The same goes for the management of work-related risks. This can be seen when, for example, requirements to wear protective equipment while doing low-risk jobs are dropped. This may, in some cases, be sensible and compliant. However if this specific relaxation of the rules becomes the norm, it could result in a lowering of standards and put workers at risk.

In the other direction, over-application of health and safety rules can end up discrediting the very value of good health and safety. Many of our members keep on top of these calculations of under- and over-application by putting health and safety on boardroom agendas. Evidence highlighted in our Business benefits of health and safety report shows that board and senior management attention and buy-in is crucial to drive up standards and drive down failures.

However, for the ‘head’ of the organisation to ensure that standards don’t slide, there must be visible and effective coordination and support across the organisation. Blind spots surrounding procedures have the potential to lead to a slide in standards.

That is why we, and you, place great value in the role that employees play in partnership with managers. It is through their involvement, that a constant stream of intelligence and knowledge-rich information can percolate throughout the organisation and build a strong health and safety culture.

An organisation is made up of many people and parts. Its success – ethically and financially – will depend on the respect it gives to its many voices and, in the end, to speaking and acting with one voice.

Alex Botha is chief executive of the British Safety Council. Follow him on Twitter: @Alexbotha1



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