Health and Safety from an HR Manager

 Audio Podcast available at the bottom of this post or on itunes.
Linda Caie on workplace safety

Often Health and Safety is given to an HR Manager to ‘get sorted’ and just get on with the task. Tony Collins discusses with Linda Nelson Caie lessons of an HR Manager.

Discussed in the podcast:

  • 00:53  What kind of Health and Safety training is covered in an HR degree?
  • 3:12 Challenges implementing Health and Safety
  • 5:59 Why the HR team brought in safety consultants
  • 7:17 How to convince management HR need support
  • 8:34 What sort of disadvantages are there with hiring consultants?
  • 10:01 How did staff react to consultants?
  • 12:36 How do you justify any safety investment?
  • 14:08 Pros and Cons with getting in consultants
  • 16:02 Wider experiences as an HR Consultant
  • 18:16 How to contact with Linda for HR advice

Tony:              We have an interesting show for you today. I’ve asked a good friend, Linda Nelson Caie, to join us. Linda has a background in HR and has worked in HR roles. Often Health and Safety is given to the HR manager and I have asked Linda to come along and give her perspective about the best way, as an HR Manager, to get Health and Safety sorted.

So Linda, within your HR field, what sort of Health and Safety training is covered in general HR training?

Linda:             If you are looking at getting into HR you really are looking at a minimum of a bachelors degree in either Human resources or a related field. For example industrial organizational psychology. Interestingly, most of the health and safety training I had was in the psychology field, rather than the HR or business field and it was mostly in the postgraduate rather than the undergraduate field. In my undergraduate degree I was exposed to it but it was more a sense of familiarity with the Health and Safety in Employment Act and just the basics eg Eliminate, Isolate, Minimize etc. This was mainly focused on rather than anything else. It is the awareness of potential hazards in the workplace and how you can potentially deal with it. In terms of there being specific Health and Safety training, there wasn’t a great deal in my undergraduate degree.

Tony:              That’s really interesting because what I’ve found is that it’s relatively simple for people to grasp the concepts around hazard or controls   and a systems approach, but I think the biggest challenge is in the psychology of the process. How people think and therefore how to change behaviors and the like. You mention you did a lot of psychology. Did you find that helped in any way?

Linda:             Yes I found that really interesting. One of the biggest things when you are engaging with Health and Safety in the workplace is that often it is seen by employees as a box ticking exercise and they don’t take it that seriously. In order to get them engaged with it and for them to actually take it onboard and run with it the psychological principles are quite good. Just a few things like getting the people that it affects involved in the planning of it particularly. In New Zealand especially, there is a mind set of the she’ll be right attitude or also just the culture of we’ve always done it this way and no ones had a serious accident yet so its OK.

Tony:              What particular problems or challenges have you faced working within HR Roles around implementing Health and Safety systems?

Linda:             Again, the biggest issue was getting buy in.  I haven’t worked in a high-risk environment. I have been in more low risk environments and because there is no high-risk machinery for example there can be bit of a happy go lucky attitude towards Health and Safety. Fortunately I have been working for organisations that are “Best Practise” organisations and they do take it seriously.

So even in an office environment it can be really little things like how your workstation is set up. Like people complaining from what was previously known as RSI, repetitive Strain Injury.  Other small things like swapping hands with your mouse can make a big difference to a persons long term ability to move their arm and their hands and also when it comes down to sick days and things like that. So it can be really little things that make a big difference over time.

Another thing that we had was we had sales reps out in the field so we had a very spread out employee base. We had issues with our range of reps, with some very tiny women to some big burly guys and when it came to how our car fleets were managed, we were expecting these very different body shapes to be fitting into these vehicles. We had one issue with a particularly petite woman who was really struggling literally to reach the pedals of her car, which is a bit of a Health and Safety issue if she can’t drive safely.

Other issues involved people who were having bad back problems because they were carrying a lot of promotional material and they weren’t lifting them correctly out of the back of their cars. So they didn’t have the best cars for that kind of work so what we did was we got in consultants to assess their cars and their lifting technique to help improve this situation. We had significant improvements in terms of reduction in sick days, and even complaints as well.  People reported back to say they were feeling much better so little things do make a big difference.

Tony:              There’s a lot there to dig a little deeper into.   The first part there is you said you brought in consultants and I’m assuming that’s to look at the technical aspects of ergonomics or manual handling around the tasks of car loading and unlading I’m assuming. How did that work for you bringing in someone outside your organization and getting them to quickly understand anything unique to what your staff were doing?

Linda:             There were only two of us in the HR team and 180 employees so the Health and Safety role fell into my tray if you like.   It was partially a time element for us as in to do health and safety properly you really do need to dedicate a decent amount of time to it.  Also expertise as neither of us were experts in ergonomics or lifting etc. so again we both came from a generalist HR background where we knew the basics but we didn’t really know the nitty-gritty or that sort of thing so really it was a bit of a no brainer when it comes to getting in consultants. Simply for the amount of time it saves you and also getting the right level of expertise as well. We did see some good results from it so it was definitely worth it.

Tony:              Yeah, I suppose one question that jumps out at me that perhaps listeners may have a similar situation at the moment. They are sitting at work and they have been told to sort out Health and Safety within the workplace. How do you go about convincing your boss, or your management that you needed support or help in this particular area?

Linda:             Luckily because we were a best practice organization it wasn’t that difficult. We were in the process of reviewing our Health and Safety processes and this issue was part of this.  Also we just didn’t have the level of expertise. We already had a relationship with a Health and Safety consultant so we used that person and when it came to outsourcing further around the country we used our local health and safety contact to coordinate for us.

Tony:               What sort of disadvantages is there with hiring consultants? One thing that springs to mind is when you get someone in the best outcome is to embed that knowledge as a system within your business so your kind of teaching a person how to fish as opposed to providing them the fish. In this case, if you had to continually bring in a consultant to provide technical advice you kind of buying the company into an ongoing commitment.  To me that’s a potential disadvantage. Did you have this issue at all and if you did how did you get around that?

Linda:             No we didn’t see this was the case at all. In fact we took a lot of learnings from the consultant that we brought in because with our office staff we got them to have a look at every single desk set up. Looking at things like the chairs and the level of the screen, looking at any ergonomic issues there might be and we got some really valuable material from them that we starting to implement into our induction process, so from that point on we were able to use this knowledge for our new employees.  So we didn’t have to continually get them back every time that we had a new person in because we were actually able to learn something from them.

Tony:              Back to the psychology, which we started off with, and the buy in. How do you think staff perceived consultants coming in to help them? Was that seen as a positive or potentially a negative?

Linda:              As I said earlier it is often a box ticking exercise when it comes to Health and safety and its not taken as seriously as it could be. I would say it was probably split as in the people who were experiencing pain or issues or discomfort in their workspace they saw it as fantastic things. For other people where this wasn’t really an issue for them they thought it was probably a bit of a waste of time and money.

Tony:              Of course we can’t make everyone happy but we are making those that need it happy at this time.

Linda:             Absolutely. And the thing is its great if you’re not having issues in your workspace and it’s a matter of tidying away a cord so you don’t rip over it, then that’s all very well and good but for the people that were experiencing issues, not doing the little things like the breaks, stretching, looking around the room and giving your eyes a rest, this was important.

It seems like a little thing but when you’re doing something every day you don’t think to do things like use the mouse with my other hand etc.  In some ways I think having an external consultant can give it a little more weight than if it is somebody in the workplace.  It really does depend on the culture of the workplace but if the individual doing it doesn’t have the reputation as a health and safety expert b or if they are known as a box ticker or whatever the case may be then its not really going to be taken that seriously.

Tony:              Yes I think there are strong parallels with parents with kids. You can suggest to your child a course of action as to what they should be doing but until they hear it from someone else it doesn’t have the same impact.

Linda:             Absolutely!

Tony:              One of the most difficult things around safety is justifying the expense of why you are putting money into it as the ultimate outcome is for nothing to happen. So was there a way to feedback to management any performance indicators that could show value from bringing in a consultant. In this case manually handling.

Linda:             Yes in this case we sent reports back. We asked the sales reps in the field who had the issues to feedback to us. Thus was especially important as we didn’t have the relationship with the other consultants in other locations and we needed to be sure they were doing a good job and that we were seeing the results. So we received a report form the consultants after they had seen each of our reps and we also got the reps to report back to us. I think immediately afterwards to get their feedback from it and also further down the track to see if things had in fact improved for them and their medical discomfort. A pretty hard message if you like is the sick days as there were fewer sick days taken as a results so in terms of quantitative data it’s pretty strong.

Tony:              Is there anything else that you can add to this from your experience around getting a consultant in?

Linda:             I guess the obvious con is that it is an extra expense and if its not supported by your senior management team its going to be a bit more difficult to do.

But on the other hand if you look at the potential cost of the risk and whether that be as minor as sick days which is obviously a cost to the organization, effectiveness of work performance, that sort of thing. So unless you have the expertise to do it yourself it’s not going to get done properly.

Tony:              Yes I agree with that. There are pros and cons. I think ideally, if able, the best outcome is for it to be driven within the orgnisation for staff to pick it up and run with it. There are strong parallels with accounting. A business will manage their finance but often they may have to outsource it depending on how big their business is to an accountant, or software or if there are large enough then employ their own people., but they still may need technical  expertise. So really its horses for courses.

Linda:             That’s right and again it depends on the workplace environment as well. I mean for a low risk environment that we were in, there is no point in having a health and safety expert on the team as a permanent staff whereas if you are in a high risk workplace using heavy machinery for example then definitely have your own expert on board.

Tony:                Sure and I know you have an HR consultancy so have been exposed to a number of high risk organisations as well. What are your experiences from what you’ve seen so far around different ways of dealing with Health and Safety?

Linda:              Its interesting because it kind of depends on the organisation and the culture of the organization. Again for organisations that can be a high risk, even just the stats on accidents in New Zealand are incredibly high and we have a great deal of legislation around health and safety yet we still have an appalling record in the workplace with health and safety accidents in which case the message is clearly not getting through.

And just because you have people at the job whether it be managers or HR, whoever are implementing these HR strategies, if its not actually followed through on the shop floor or wherever the case may be then you are wasting your time and your money and something seriously needs to be done to address that.

Tony:              I totally agree. There is going to be a big change in New Zealand around Health and safety across the board this year 2013, and this is the reason for this podcast and video channels. I’m personally going to take it on myself to have a crack at providing good information to people out there and make a difference so thank you for coming along and helping. Is there anything you want to add before we sum up?

Linda:             Just one thing we didn’t briefly touch on was the psychological aspects of health and safety and in fact workplace stress is part of the Health and Safety Act as well and it’s something that’s sort of neglected as a softer part of health and safety as it’s easier to look at the high risk elements and the physical elements also. But thinking about the psychological wellbeing of your employees is really important and it is something that gets forgotten.

Tony:              Hey that’s a good point and if I can twist your arm maybe we can get you back to talk about stress. Hey Linda if people want to get hold of you for HR advice how do they go about doing that?

Linda:            Probably the best way is through my website which is

Tony:              OK thanks Linda and we’ll catch you another time, hopefully.

Linda:            Thanks Tony.