Line managers take the lead

7 August, 2015  |  News

In an earlier IOSH session an energy company executive with responsibility for health and safety said he believed OHS leadership could be more effective if it came from line managers rather than from OHS professionals.

Simon Wills, group director for health, safety, environment and security with Centrica, said he didn’t think safety leadership should always be visible leadership within the line of a business. “I’m not saying that the health and safety community shouldn’t be instrumental in the background, but I’m not sure it should be doing the visible leadership.” Without strong commitment and connection to health and safety from line managers, and from the managing director and CEO, it is hard to get beyond a compliance culture. “If we want to really transform the health and safety performance of businesses we need to get line managers leading and driving it forward.”

Wills said he personally did not have a background in health and safety, and neither did four of Centrica’s five other senior OHS directors.

“We come from operational backgrounds, but we care, absolutely and passionately, about safety and about people. I’m in this role because I can make a difference. I’m currently going through a NEBOSH qualification because you do need to be able to ask the right questions, but I don’t think that at leadership level you necessarily need to have all the technical skills.”

He questioned, however, why it was apparently easier for people with no background in OHS to move into senior health and safety roles than it was for OHS professionals to move into senior management.

“What is it that we are or aren’t training people in as they come through the OHS professional route that makes it so much harder for them to move from that functional role into a line management role? We need to think about that.”

Competency studies of Centrica’s health and safety team had found the biggest gaps were around people management, Wills said, suggesting that those with a strong technical focus sometimes struggled in this area. As managing director of a gas storage business he had often encountered resistance when he tried to teach leadership skills to his engineering managers.

“They said: ‘We haven’t got time for this soft people stuff. We’ve got a real job to do.’ The truth is the soft stuff is actually harder than the hard stuff, and if you’re a manager it’s part of your role.”

OHS professionals had a particularly difficult task, he said, because a robust OHS culture was dependent on people being committed to working safely.

“If you use logic and theory that’s great – you get understanding, but not always buy-in. The things that actually change people are the powerful safety stories that they can connect to at an emotional level. I think the biggest challenge for us as an industry is how we get the emotional connections and drive forward positive change without people being killed.”

Source: Alert24