Health and safety needs to be a constant focus of the conversation - with Francois Barton

Francois Barton is the Executive Director of the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum. We spoke to Francois about the Forum and how health and safety leadership is impacting the worksite. 

Francois Barton

Francois, what's your background? 

I've worked in the health and safety arena for around 14 years. I was with the Ministry for the Environment working in sustainable industry practices for three years, then spent some time with the Department of Labour and then moved to Worksafe during the establishment of the organisation. My roles have included the development of policy, strategy, program design and support.  

I have been with the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum for the past five years, which is a more leadership-focused role. The thread that runs through these roles is how do we develop productive, successful businesses while growing and protecting our natural capitals – including our people. 

What are the aims of the Business Leaders Health & Safety Forum? 

The Forum is a place for the exchange and sharing of views while challenging business leaders to strive for improved health and safety outcomes.  

We are a leadership group, not a health and safety technical management group. Health and safety is a cultural and social outcome, and it's leadership that drives culture, which in turn encourages better performance. The Forum is about developing a community for Chief Executives to connect and learn from each other as well as providing access to international and New Zealand expertise that supports their unique leadership work in driving better health and safety and productivity.  

Has there been an improvement in health and safety leadership in New Zealand? 

The Forum turned 10 in July 2020, and over that time, we have seen a massive evolution in how health and safety is viewed around board and leadership tables.  

There has been a significant change in how health and safety is talked about and actioned on worksites with boards and Chief Executives now viewing it as a critical component of their leadership and governance work. How we understand health and safety in our increasingly disaggregated contracting and outsourcing models has demanded that we come to terms with the fact that it doesn't sit in just one place. We now recognise that health and safety flows right through the supply chains to the worksite. The fact that we now include mental well-being as a legitimate, almost revolutionary concept within the health and safety well-being discussion, is a real sign of maturity.  

How are the accident figures on work sites trending? 

Construction killed more people last year than it has in any single year in the past decade. I think our understanding and awareness of health and safety has increased significantly, but we're still struggling with the execution.  

I came across this quote recently from an activist in the US regarding civil rights. Shaun King said, "we confuse heightened awareness of the problem as being closer to solving it." I think we have a heightened understanding of health, safety and well-being issues on the worksite but the challenge is still in the execution. There remains an urgent need for governance, businesses and sectors to improve their implementation of health and safety practices.  

What are the critical challenges for leaders and directors in the health and safety arena? 

I believe one of the challenges for Chief Executives and boards is that their complexity is the breadth, not depth.  

Pretty much every element of a business which requires leadership and oversight ends up at the board room and executive table. Unfortunately, health and safety is too often seen as adding breadth rather than being weaved into the existing operations. Some executives and directors still hold the opinion that health and safety is a technical thing that can be fixed and will stay fixed. In this context, the box on the health and safety plan has moved from red to green, so we say it's all under control, but the fact is health and safety is complex and dynamic, which means it's always on the table. It needs to be a constant focus of the conversation. The challenge for our business leaders and Chief Executives is how do we make sense of our work in that space? What do we focus on, and how do we keep ourselves and our people energised? 

Is health and safety seen as purely a compliance issue?  

Historically health and safety has been managed through compliance mechanisms. Using this approach takes you some distance down the track but not far enough.  

Of course, health and safety is about complying with the law, but if you begin to look at it through the lens of care and protection, it's a ticket to a completely different type of game. Everybody knows Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs." In short, Maslow said, "don't ask me to love if I can't breathe." In our businesses, we want employees in both our workforce and supply chain to be their best. We want them to give us discretionary effort and innovate, adapt and respond while delivering 110 per cent. Health and safety is an opportunity to actively demonstrate you care about the core hygiene of human existence by looking after people at work. There are the simple things like not having something fall on a worker and preventing them from being run over by a vehicle, while in the well-being area there are issues of impairment, fatigue and resilience. If your business can be seen to be delivering in those areas, your workers will listen to you differently, and your supply chain will also begin to listen to you in a whole different way.  

Are there cultural benefits that come from good health and safety? 

Many businesses strive to maximise the cultural benefits from health and safety, but the reality is, leaders generally look at it with an eye to productivity gains, profitability margins and shareholder value. I very much doubt a worker will get out of bed in the morning saying I am going to give everything today so that the Chairman or Chief Executive will gain their bonus this year. On the other hand, if a business shows practical, verifiable evidence that it cares about its workers, a lot of other things become possible.  

So we have moved away from health and safety being about road cones and hard hats?  

We now understand that health and safety is about work - machinery, people, schedules, processes and material all coming together to deliver a service or a product. When you begin to think about health and safety as work and caring, you find innovation and adaptation begins to creep into the conversation. The organisations that understand this concept tend to deliver better health, safety and well-being outcomes, and this has been very evident during the last 150 days as we worked through the COVID crisis. Health and safety aware companies are staying elevated, engaged and are on point with their work practices. They have demonstrated how leadership in health and safety has become a critical part of the cultural capability of New Zealand industry. 

What should consultants be doing in the health and safety arena?        

There are two parts to this question. Firstly, consultants play a critical role in the design and project management of the work, and thus their role often impacts on the health and safety of the total worksite. I think the challenge for professionals in this space is that they can often operate in a customer context which doesn't allow them to be all they can be. There are opportunities for clients to give permission and encouragement to all parties to become more involved in health and safety conversations. The more we have engineering professionals operating with higher levels of collaboration, the better. Secondly, concerning the well-being of the profession, there needs to be a greater focus on the mental welfare of workers. Fatigue and impairment are the two most common stress symptoms of workers in the engineering and consulting sectors. The feedback from professional services that I have spoken to is its "nose to the grindstone" until almost burnt out; then we have a short breather and re-engage. I don't have the answers, but to me, that isn't a sustainable business model, and more conversations are required with clients and workers alike to understand the problems around the mental health of workers.  

Connect with Francois Barton on LinkedIn