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Creating a culture of everyday safety

By Nick Alford, Group Director of Health, Safety and Environment

Originally published in the Serco People Report 2020.

“Let’s talk about health and safety–” In my experience, nothing is more likely to ruin a good discussion than those well-intentioned words. What do they make you think of? Policies and procedures? Complicated forms and mystifying data?

We do need to talk about health and safety, though, so let’s strip away the legal, the technical and the academic and remind ourselves we’re talking about actual people – not numbers – starting and ending our days safely and in good health, staying prosperous and productive. That’s what we want; that’s where we’re headed; but there’s still room for improvement. Perhaps we need to approach that conversation a little differently…

Across Serco, our people are engaged in a wide range of high-risk activities for which we have comprehensive safety controls in place. We recognise, though, that accidents can happen in any workplace environment.

Research has shown that the root cause of many incidents are simple behavioural lapses. Today, we’re on a journey to tackle that risk by helping our colleagues to better recognise and remain alert to the risks around them, no matter what they do and where they do it.

Our approach is underpinned by four key principles:

1. Safety needs to be simple

Simple mistakes can cost dearly but preventing them doesn’t have to. It’s easy to get lost in complexity, but less is usually more.

It’s remarkable the difference even one simple behavioural adjustment can make – small changes to our ways of working, taking time to think – something that’s easy to share, easy to understand and easy to adopt.

‘Turn around for safety’ is one simple solution we’ve introduced. Without warning, a supervisor will blow a whistle and everybody stops working. They examine their immediate area for any safety hazards, put them right and keep a record.

2. Safety needs to be safe

Workplace accidents are rarely intentional or malicious, and yet the consequences of speaking up can be feared – hiding issues and creating resistance. But we can’t learn and improve if we don’t know.

We’ve spent the last two years developing and deploying our ‘just safety culture’, in which all action taken is carefully proportionate and focused on identifying root causes to prevent recurrence. It’s never about blame. It’s always about fostering transparency, honesty and trust.

As we embed our just safety culture, all of this works together to create an environment in which people feel psychologically safe – able to speak up, challenge, experiment and celebrate.

3. Safety needs to be owned by everybody

Safety starts and ends with each of us as individuals. After all, most of us are responsible for our own everyday accidents. Helping people to understand and recognise their personal responsibilities for health and safety – including how they can make a difference through proactive ownership – is key to stronger team performance.

Personal accountability is a key theme throughout Serco. For example, ‘Serco Cares’, ‘Respect & Protect’ and our Operational Excellence programme are all inspiring and empowering greater levels of ownership at the frontline with a wealth of benefits that include health and safety.

4. Safety needs to look, feel and be led like a top priority

“Safety is our top priority…” Easy to say, but what does it look and feel like? For everyday safety to thrive, it must be clearly visible and accessible – brought to life in ways that are real and meaningful.

Highly engaged, visible and receptive leaders are an important part of keeping safety fresh, alive and always on the radar. Of course, we should all make time to explore and engage beyond our immediate environment. One day in someone else’s world can teach you more than several months in your own, especially in an operational landscape as diverse as ours.

Presence, tone and identity are also key. Walk into a building site or any safety-critical environment and you’ll see safety messages everywhere. You’ll believe how invested in safety the organisation is. It’s impossible not to remain acutely conscious of health and safety and behave accordingly.

Our ambition was to capture that and bring it to life in every Serco work environment.

We wanted to draw attention to everyday risks in a way that our people had never seen before. Working with health and safety specialists and our frontline colleagues, we developed a striking new suite of ‘high-visibility’ workplace safety resources covering a wide range of everyday risks. We also made sure that they were personal, engaging and internationally applicable. Most significantly of all, we moved away from our standard brand guidelines to create a bolder and more remarkable look and feel.

These examples are just some of the ways in which we’ve been driving safety deeper into our culture and ways of working. Our ambition is for safety to become as natural an instinct among our colleagues as our public service ethos, unconsciously guiding how they work, think and behave. We are addressing motivations, breaking down misconceptions and redefining and reshaping safety culture at every level. Our current maturity may vary from one sector and region to another, but we are seeing steady, sustained progress throughout.

There will always be room for improvement, of course, but it’s much easier – and much more effective – when everyone wants to be part of the conversation.