OHS champion has pivotal role in breakthrough change: study

IWH study of health and safety success stories shines light on the potential of individual change agent to create momentum for safer practices

Published: May 6, 2014

It’s often said in workplace health and safety that change starts at the top. But according to early findings from an Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study, that’s not necessarily the case. The study examined four organizations that managed to turn around their poor health and safety record, and one common factor emerging is the pivotal role of the health and safety champion.

That champion may go by different titles—whether “human resources manager” or “health, safety and environment coordinator.” What was consistent was how this person brought occupational health and safety (OHS) knowledge into the organization, helped integrate that knowledge throughout, and fostered positive social dynamics that built collaboration and empowered workers, says IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson, lead researcher on the project named “Breakthrough Change.”

In the workplaces we studied, there was always one individual we call the knowledge transformation leader, says Robson in an article about the study in the Winter 2014 edition of Contact (vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 8-9), a newsletter of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE). This person was the orchestrator of change. He or she applied effective organizational and people skills to transform the OHS knowledge into policies, procedures and practices that ultimately reduced the OHS risks for employees.

Participating firms saw claims rates fall over 10 years

To conduct the study, Robson and her team combed through statistics from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board between 1998 and 2008. They looked for firms that started out among the 50 per cent with the highest claim rates in their subsectors, and ended up among the 20 per cent with the lowest over the 10 years. They did brief interviews to ensure that the firms experienced this change as part of an intentional effort to improve health and safety—not as a result of reorganization or another unrelated reason.

Robson and her team then homed in on four workplaces. They toured the organizations and conducted interviews with about 10 individuals at each. They also drew on a wide range of documentation—from notes of the joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) to Ministry of Labour (MOL) records of orders. The goal was to put together a picture of the health and safety risks at these workplaces and the reasons why claims rates may have declined.

Robson’s team found some common elements to these organizations’ breakthrough change process. At the start of the change, some type of external influence on the organization (from market pressure to an MOL order) helped bring into alignment three factors: its motivation to take action, new OHS knowledge being brought into the workplace, and a health and safety champion integrating that knowledge.

Once the change process was in place, other common factors came into play, including: positive social dynamics; organizational responsiveness to worker concerns; supportive management; strong employee relations; simultaneous improvement in core operations; relatively low turnover; a responsive maintenance group; and continuous OHS improvement.

Passion and personal charm

The health and safety champion plays a key role not only in integrating OHS knowledge, but also in fostering the positive social dynamics that help build momentum for change. A good example of such a champion was an OHS co-ordinator identified in the study as Tess. Hired by a metal machinery parts manufacturer employing 200 people, Tess brought to the role both a passion for health and safety and great personal charm.

From her first day on the job, Tess was eager to learn about workers’ jobs and the hazards involved. With managers and workers alike, she spent time to explain the rationale for rules, using not just arguments but appeals to emotion.

She had an astute understanding of the process of change. When warned that certain people could be difficult, for example, she made sure to meet them early on and in doing so neutralized their potential opposition. Knowing the value of “early wins,” she first tackled the small but visible changes and built worker support for the process.

Another example was a human resources manager at a community agency working with people with disabilities—a man identified as Stan. Staff at the agency credited him for his quiet persistence as well as his ability to communicate the issues. Tapping into the OHS knowledge of a consultant at a health and safety association, one of Ontario’s prevention system partners, Stan was also able to win the support of senior managers and involved workers at all levels.

He engaged front-line supervisors and created opportunities for them to discuss draft policies, develop new practices and take on leadership roles through train-the-trainer programs. He involved the worker co-chair of the JHSC early in the process, who in turn played a big role to bring others onside. Their joint commitment to the issue spread to the other JHSC members. As one worker told the researchers, the committee went from being boring and dry to rewarding, as members started to see all that was being accomplished.

Breakthrough change is not a solo act, Robson notes. No one individual can bring about systemic and sustainable change in an organization. As the study reveals, many factors need to align for change to take hold.

However, what the study shows is that one person, working with others, can build momentum, she adds.

The health and safety champion may not be able to do it alone, but he or she can help organizations move a long way toward improved health and safety, says Robson.

You can hear Robson talk more about the study at an IWH plenary in Toronto on May 13 (www.iwh.on.ca/plenaries), and at the CSSE’s 2014 Professional Development Conference in Calgary on September 14-17 (www.csse.org/annual_conference).