All care no responsibility: What is the role of health and safety management?

I was recently involved is some discussion on LinkedIn about the liability of health and safety managers under health and safety legislation (link here)

Several responses seemed to suggest that because health and safety managers had no authority, they should not have any accountability either – that safety managers only provide advice and have no authority over others.

I must say this is a proposition I find extraordinary, but let’s explore it.

I wrote some time ago that safety managers should have the same level of accountability as company officers, after all, they are the architects of the safety management system and should have some idea about how well it is working  (Are health and safety managers company offices and should they be ?)

Many enquiries around the world have identified that a focus on personal injury rates is not a good indicator of the effectiveness of the health and safety management system, and on occasions, the focus on personal injury rate management can distract an organisation from managing the critical health and safety risks in its business.

Quite rightly, enquiries criticise organisations where the focus on personal injury rates have undermined the effectiveness of their health and safety management system.  But surely, the health and safety manager also has an accountability?

While it might be correct to criticise a chief executive officer of such an organisation, it cannot be correct to suggest that the chief executive officer has a greater understanding of personal injury rates and their influence on safety management than the safety manager.

While the safety manager might not have “authority” surely, they have accountability to advise the organisation about the perils of overreliance on personal injury rates, and to monitor the safety management system to ensure that any reliance on personal injury rates is not undermining safety management.  It must be correct, that a safety manager should continue to warn or flag any concerns whenever they believe that the focus on personal injury rates damages effective safety management.

Is a chief executive officer’s culpability for failing to enquire about the effectiveness of personal injury rates as a measure of safety any less than a safety manager’s culpability for failing to advise?

What about the positive obligations of due diligence imposed on company officers under WHS Legislation.  Is the health and safety industry trying to argue that those standards should not apply to health and safety managers?

Under WHS Legislation, due diligence includes taking reasonable steps to achieve several stated outcomes. 

To acquire and keep up-to-date knowledge of work health and safety matters.

To gain an understanding of the nature of the operations of the business or undertaking of the person conducting the business or undertaking and generally of the hazards and risks associated with those operations.

I do not think anybody could suggest that health and safety managers do not need to meet these expectations. And if they fail to meet these expectations, surely, they should be liable in the same way as company officers.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has available for use, and uses, appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety from work carried out as part of the conduct of the business or undertaking.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has appropriate processes for receiving and considering information regarding incidents, hazards and risks and responding in a timely way to that information.

To ensure that the person conducting the business or undertaking has, and implements, processes for complying with any duty or obligation of the person conducting the business or undertaking under this Act.

While it may be true that health and safety managers cannot “ensure”, in the sense that they do not authorise capital expenditure or budgets to achieve this outcome, it is true in my view that health and safety managers are responsible for “ensuring” or at the very least knowing, if:

  • The resources and processes are suitable;
  • The resources and processes are implemented; and
  • The resources and processes are effective to manage the health and safety risks in the business. 

It cannot be right to say that a chief executive officer or another company officer who does not meet these obligations is any more liable than a health and safety manager.

The only possible, reasonable defence that a safety manager could have is they advised, and continue to advise executive management on the suitability, implementation and effectiveness of the health and safety management resources and processes, but that advice was ignored.

If health and safety managers do not have accountability to ensure (or at the very least have an intimate knowledge of) the suitability, implementation and effectiveness of the health and safety management resources and processes, then what is the purpose of having safety managers at all?

To verify the provision and use of the resources and processes referred to in [the above] paragraphs.

It could not possibly be arguable that a health and safety manager has a lesser responsibility to ensure that the resources and processes for managing health and safety risk in business are used than company officers.

Indeed, I can think of no higher duty placed on a health and safety manager than to provide ongoing verification to the business that the resources and processes in place to manage the health and safety risks in the business are in place, implemented and effective to control those risks.

Several years ago, I was at a safety conference, and there were three safety managers on stage talking through their latest success and innovation.  When it came time for questions I asked:

who is responsible for knowing if these things work?

The question seemed to stump the participants, and I got various, unsatisfactory answers ranging from descriptions of reporting processes through to abrogation of responsibilities to “risk owners”.

While everybody in an organisation has responsibilities for safety and health, surely it is the accountability of the health and safety manager, the person engaged to “manage” health and safety to know if health and safety management actually “works”?

If I want to know if my organisation is managing its health and safety risks as low as reasonably practicable, surely the person best placed to answer that question is the health and safety manager?  If they do not have oversight of the effectiveness of health and safety management in the organisation – when that is what they are employed to do – why should anybody else?

Why should the chief executive officer’s obligation to understand the effectiveness of health and safety management in their organisation be any greater than the health and safety manager’s?

It seems to me that until the health and safety industry is prepared to take ownership of health and safety management and stop hiding behind “line management responsibility” and a lack of “authority”, recognition as a “profession” is a long way away.

Until health and safety managers can clearly articulate how well the health and safety management system works in their organisation, and explain what they rely on to form that view, is the position really worthy of the title manager?




12 thoughts on “All care no responsibility: What is the role of health and safety management?

  1. Whilst I appreciate your comments and experiences, I am in the position where I am not able to make those upper management descisions. I am in a business where the focus needs to shift dramatically away from the tick and flick mentality. So how would you expect me to take on ” officer ” as per the definition from the Act if I have to fight for 10 minutes to get the PCBU and other duty holders to even listen to my stats on injuries, near misses, changes to workplace, WHS strategy so on and so forth.
    Total mindset change neeed.

    1. Emma. I think we need to be careful not to confuse “difficult” with a lack of accountability or responsibility. Workers often have to work in difficult workplaces, with little of no regard paid to safety. However, they still have health and safety obligations and have to justify their conduct if there is an accident. Why should a safety manager be any different? I am not assigning liability to the role of safety manager – the difficulties you describe may be a completely reasonable explanation/defence in the context of your responsibilities. But what we see all to often in safety management is an abrogation of responsibility by safety managers under the guise of “line accountability” or “executive due diligence”.

  2. There is a massive difference between ‘knowing’ what works, providing ongoing verification of effectiveness of applied resources and controls and on the other hand – ensuring that resources and processes are actually used, otherwise ‘owning safety on the organisation’.
    Ownership of safety belongs to all but predominantly to those who control resources, people, budgets and expenditure and ability to allocate it and issue lawful instruction. Let’s not muddy the waters, to issue lawful instruction, one has to be a duty holder and with substantial organisational or legislative authority.

    This is not semantics but a difference between being able to issue lawful instruction or not. Most safety managers do not have this ability, although I would wholeheartedly support it.
    I know many outstanding safety managers who have attempted to ‘own safety’ in their business and have been very quickly sent out as being viewed as ‘too strong’ and as ‘an internal police’
    Lack of authority is a real problem and not something good safety managers are ‘hiding behind’. Without authority to issue instructions, safety manager is left with only an ability to advise and raise problems (very carefully) to those who can correct them.
    Universally accepted paradigm in management is that to have accountability, one must have authority, otherwise one is only set up for a failure. Surely this applies to safety managers as well.

    There needs to be an accountability for safety managers but only strictly associated with the defence you mentioned – due diligence in raising issues, developing effective systems and processes and advising on suitability, effectiveness and their implementation. Trouble is, by the time you get to that stage (repeated advice and record keeping) most safety managers are already on their way out (read being pushed out).

    1. I spent last 30 years dealing with the issue of safety ownership in organisations. Goran, your post explains it all with perfect clarity

    2. Interesting debate. I understand where Greg is coming from however safety managers cannot be held responsible for anything more than providing competent advice, building sound management systems and raising issues upwards within their operational envelope, regardless of their level. I have seen many cases of competent and passionate safety professionals being removed from organisations for trying to own safety, or for failing to achieve what is essentially a line management accountability – safety in operations. There can be no accountability without authority. I think people need to spend a few years in safety management roles to understand the issues involved

  3. Safety reps in some jurisdictions have more authority than safety managers. It is a funny world out there

  4. One of the responsibilities and organization has is to identify the WHS roles and responsibilities of everyone in the organization, this includes the WHS Manager. While this may not be applicable in Private enterprise in Government Departments there is a requirement for Personal Development Plans . In the case of the WHS Manager their responsibilities should be reflected in performance plans and they are evaluated accordingly .I have worked for a few NSW Government Organisations and I have found this to be the most effective way of distinguishing between the responsibilities of the WHS Manager and other people in the organisation

  5. Interesting, I see that the role of the safety professional is to manage the companies P&P, training the managers to make the essential changed to there work processes and educate the staff involved. The safety manager manages the managers and line supervisors in best practice,(or what they perceive to be best practice). The duty of care makes us all responsible at law, if we are proven to be reckless and subsequently caused loss, we all have the right to stop the job should we feel that all real risk has not been mitigated fully.
    The safety manager at this juncture assists in making the right choices, and yes these should be documented as evidence of the situation and its outcomes.

    I have been a certification auditor RABQSA OH&S and would fail or not recommend certification if proper involvement was not evident by all concerned.
    Managers under pressure to perform are among the worst for providing poor OH&S figures, but on the other hand they provide the best production outcomes. A battle of survival you may say?.

  6. I think every employee has a legal duty to discharge which is influenced by the level of budgetary control, authority, knowledge and the entrusted responsibility placed upon that person by the main duty holder.

    A safety manger is hired on the premise of being competent at his craft, being suitably skilled, experienced, knowledgeable and often accredited as a subject matter expert with an association such as SIA etc.

    He is entrusted by the main duty holder with providing him expert guidance. The information is relied upon by the main duty holder to allow him to make management decisions. The advice and management methodology provided by the safety manager must be of a diligent nature taking into account what the safety manager should have reasonably known at the time as a safety professional.

    This highlights the importance of persons in safety remaining on top of their craft and being open to questioning long out-dated management theories and practices.

  7. Great discussion and I understand and agree with your dissertation Greg.
    However, the reality is that many safety “managers” are unable to influence and/or direct action/resources/decisions in their organisation and this creates a level of frustration and ultimately, a lack of desire to be held accountable.
    In my experience, most people are willing to be held accountable if they actually have an ability to make decisions, or at least influence the decision makers.
    Greg, your final comment “Until health and safety managers can clearly articulate how well the health and safety management system works in their organisation, and explain what they rely on to form that view, is the position really worthy of the title manager?” leads me to my final point – you need to have a forum to articulate, and people who will actually listen. You are correct, many so-called “safety managers” do not have this ability – but why were they appointed? As scape goats? For the organisation to appear to be doing something? Because senior management want to “wash their hands” of the safety problem? Because senior management don’t know better?

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