Have safety and sustainability drifted apart?
Andy Cartland, founder and MD at Acre, the United Kingdom market leader in sustainability and safety recruitment, speaks to Elaine Heyworth about what safety and sustainability can learn from each other. A senior risk director, Elaine’s career spans the global financial services, railway and telecoms industries with roles at Heathrow Express, EE and Barclays Bank.
Andy: Elaine, you have extensive experience across the global financial services, railway and telecoms industries, what’s your view of the relationship between health & safety and sustainability?
Elaine: Sustainability is ultimately about keeping the business going, but keeping people safe is the basis of everything. If you can’t keep your people safe, how can you keep your customers safe? And if you can’t keep your customers safe, you won’t have a business for very long. Throughout my career I’ve always seen the two professions as interconnected, but I’m conscious that this isn’t the case in all organizations.
Andy: Why do you think that is?
Elaine: I think it’s because safety is an absolute – things are either safe and compliant or they’re not, end of story. The sustainability agenda however is far more flexible in terms of application. A company gets to choose what responsible and sustainable business practices look like for their organization. They can be more creative with that interpretation and dare I say it, that’s a bit sexier than compliance. People like talking about innovations and new ideas but in the world of safety, we’re often limited on that front. A good day for us is the absence of something i.e. an incident, and with the best will in the world, a non-incident doesn’t make for much of a story.
Andy: Are you saying health & safety has a PR problem?
Elaine: I suppose I am. I’ve spent my whole career in safety and it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about, but as a profession we’re perceived to be quiet earnest and as a rule we’re not very good at talking about the great work we do. In my experience, safety professionals don’t always have the skills to really engage senior executives. So there’s a lot the safety profession can learn from the rising star of sustainability in terms of how to communicate their achievements.
Andy: Can you give me an example?
Elaine: In my experience, where sustainability has earned its place at the boardroom table it’s been because those leading it understood the need to speak the language of the business. All professions end up having their own languages, stuffed full of jargon that means very little to anyone else, so it’s about changing the language to suit the person you’re speaking to. In a safety setting, out on site it’s all about the individual. In the boardroom, it’s all about the business and therefore what and how you communicate has to change accordingly.
Andy: I’m sure the sustainability community has a lot to learn from their counterparts in safety too?
Elaine: Absolutely. So much has been achieved in sustainability because of the attention paid to building the business case for change. And if there’s one thing that safety people do better than anyone, it’s proof. Health and safety professionals are very data focused, after all, they’ve been providing solid evidence of the impact of their processes and procedures to the bottom line since 1974 (the UK’s Health & Safety at Work Act). And health and safety people are also very adept when it comes to understanding and managing a challenging regulatory environment, which is something else that could be shared with sustainability colleagues.
Andy: What advice would you give to safety professionals who want to develop their careers?
Elaine: Firstly, take the blinkers off. Take time to understand the wider business imperative beyond keeping people safe and think about the ways in which safety can link into what the business wants to do. You have to link safety to the bigger picture and think strategically. For example, if the company wants to expand internationally, how can you support that ambition through the safety agenda?
Secondly, cultivate your sense of perspective and your ability to see things from other points of view. It’s about understanding safety through the finance, operations or marketing director’s perspective. What does safety mean to them? This is something the sustainability profession has started to do well and is part of the reason for its current profile.
Andy: Do you see a case for bringing safety and sustainability professionals closer together?
Elaine: I think people need the space to be the specialists they are, but they both have much to learn from closer collaboration. I’ve always made it a priority to get to know the sustainability team in whatever organization I’ve been working in and it’s something I actively encouraged within my team. If the link doesn’t currently exist in your organization, start driving the conversation now.
Elaine Heyworth is a senior risk director with extensive experience in the global financial services, railway and telecoms industries. Her previous roles include Safety & Assurance Director at Heathrow Express, Head of Infrastructure Risk at EE and Head of Environmental Management at Barclays Bank.
Andy Cartland is founder and MD at Acre, the UK market leader in sustainability and safety recruitment for more than a decade. Andy is also a Trustee for Global Action Plan a charity that brings people together and inspires them to take practical environmental action, and an advisor to social impact consultancy, Uscreates.
Source: Safety & Health Practitioner www.shponline.co.uk