His experience with medical professionals who were caring for his late wife led BRIAN DARLINGTON to ponder: within the field of health and safety, do we care enough?

On 2 June 2011, my late wife Bela was seriously injured in an accident. Fighting for her life, she was airlifted to a neurological hospital in Austria. She had sustained numerous fractures to her face and head and was in a coma for a while. She spent an initial three months in hospital followed by many more visits over the next 18 months. During the first three months of her recovery and rehabilitation, I spent most of my time at the hospital supporting her while she received both good and bad news related to her injuries.

This is when I began to appreciate the caring approach of people working in the medical field. Not only did they do their utmost best to bring Bela back to full health, they treated her with respect and made her comfortable in her surroundings. The words they used were caring and showed lots of compassion – for her as well as my daughter and myself. This approach gave us comfort that she was in the best hands and we were confident that she would eventually be restored to good health.

It wasn’t only the medical staff at the hospital who showed this level of caring: so did the team of emergency doctors and paramedics who worked frantically to stabilise Bela for three-quarters of an hour after they arrived at the scene of the accident. Not only did they stabilise her condition, but they also paid attention to the mental state of Nastasha, who had witnessed the accident.

Is risk and safety a caring profession?

Some months ago, I was watching a documentary related to psychology and observed the supportive and caring approach by the various psychologists who were working with patients. They had open and honest discussions with them, giving the patients the opportunity to share their experiences. Instead of telling or probing, the psychologists allowed the patients to do the talking. Their focus was on listening with intent, and by doing so they showed that they were hearing what was being said and that they cared.

This documentary reminded me of the experience we had at the Austrian hospital in 2011–2012. It made me wonder whether we, as risk and safety professionals, have a humanising or dehumanising approach in the way we manage safety in our companies.

After some reflection, I had to admit that our profession is not always as caring as it should be – certainly not in the ways evidenced by doctors, nurses, psychologists and fire and rescue personnel, to name a few.

What about incident investigations?

It dawned on me that safety is often seen as a policing role rather than a caring one, especially during incident investigations. I say this because I often hear people start an investigation with something like: “This investigation is focused on finding the facts and not apportioning blame.” However, once the investigation begins, this principle is forgotten and the tone of the questioning leans towards the accusatory. As a result, people tend to feel nervous and  they clam up.

Investigation teams should pay attention to the language they use during an investigation, the way they phrase questions, and the best time to collect interviews of witnesses and affected persons. 

The traditional thinking is that it’s best to record interviews immediately after the incident has occurred, while memories are still fresh.

Consequently, interviews are often conducted without considering the trauma that people have experienced due to the incident (especially if fatal or serious injuries have occurred in the workplace). The supportive approach would be to allow time off and delay the interviews until the employees are psychologically more ready to be questioned. Yes, I do understand that it is important to obtain statements from the witnesses as soon as possible; however, if the investigating team were guided by a caring approach, they would regard the witnesses’ welfare to be more important.

For example, I could not imagine how traumatic it would have been for Nastasha had the police asked her for a detailed statement immediately after Bela had been airlifted to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

When setting up investigation teams, it is not common for companies to include a counsellor, who provides support to the persons being interviewed. I was recently involved in chairing the investigation of a serious incident during which the team included an occupational health practitioner with counselling experience. Her role was to ensure the persons being interviewed were not placed under stress. She was there to call time-out when needed. The feedback from the interviewees was positive. The counsellor was also present immediately after the incident as support to everyone involved.

Are our titles a hindrance to caring?

Think about the titles given to people working in the risk and safety field across the world: “safety officer”, “safety marshal”, “safety inspector”… In my view, these are counterproductive to our efforts to develop a safety culture of support, trust and engagement. These terms suggest an element of policing, which is not how we want to be seen. (I prefer titles based on a supportive role such as safety advisor or safety coordinator.)

Words that are allied to the idea of policing include “monitoring”, “checking”, “enforcing” and “keeping watch” over others – words that crop up when you ask people what “safety department” means to them. One of the negative phrases used goes something like: “The safety legislation requires you to comply.” Well, you couldn’t be much more policing than this! Far better to highlight the benefit of adhering to the requirements for one’s own safety or that of others.

Here’s something for risk and safety professionals to consider: do the teams on the shop floor view them in a supportive role (safety advisor) or do they see them as “policemen”? If they see them in a policing role, safety can be seen in a negative light – and the tendency could be to ignore it. Risk and safety professionals should offer to be part of the team in finding the best solutions. 

It’s a caring profession, after all

I would hope that most persons employed in risk and safety have common objectives: to improve working conditions and to send everybody home safely. But are the messages we convey to our employees aligned to those objectives, or are they counterproductive? Do our safety and health campaigns cover issues such as mental well-being (psychological) and team dynamics (cultural)? Or are they focused only on the physical aspects of risk and safety?

As I’ve mentioned in my previous articles, semiotics plays an important part in developing the desired culture in an organisation. The posters and banners that we display around the workplace should reflect a caring approach rather than a mere set of instructions. Safety notice boards should be used not only to share incident numbers but also to convey positive messages. 

I encourage you to reassess your approach. Focus on terms such as building relationships, teamwork, motivation, influencing, belonging, engaging, supporting, understanding and respect.

Thinking back to our experience when Bela was in hospital, the medical team’s attitude had a huge positive influence on our mental well-being and carried our family through a very difficult period. As risk and safety professionals, we should aspire to have the same caring attitude when we deal with employees and contractors working in our companies.  

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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