Management / Rene Carayol: Culture is the key when it comes to a lasting health and safety legacy

Rene Carayol: Culture is the key when it comes to a lasting health and safety legacy

I disembark the wonderful British Airways A380 at the pristine OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg. It is one of the easiest long-haul journeys, taking off just in time for dinner and landing after a good night’s sleep in time for breakfast – in the comfort of this comfortable, near-silent new jet.

On stepping off the plane, it is plain to see the enormous legacy the successful 2010 World Cup bid has left for South Africa. The airport has had the most amazing upgrade and a much-needed “beauty facelift”.

I clearly remember so many cynical naysayers spouting off, “they’ll never be ready in time”. The US and England were encouraged by many commentators to make real contingency plans to be on “hot standby” for the eventual admission of failure that would surely come some time in 2009.

But the announcement never came, and the tournament was a huge success. A whole set of new processes and procedures for the commensurate and necessary health and safety infrastructure were a by-product of the 2010 World Cup being staged in South Africa.

With nearly half a million fans and tourists flooding into South Africa, what appeared like a whole new industry was professionally put in place; consultants, experts, trainers, auditors and many more official bodies were all employed. The government and the South African footballing authorities were desperate to ensure this huge and very high-profile event would not suffer any tragic mishaps or accidents.

Matches were being played in all of South Africa’s major cities. Large noticeboards, high-vis jackets and forthright, friendly voices shared safety messages from just about every place fans gathered. Employees attended training courses and the media was mobilised to make health and safety “top of mind” for everyone, whether visitor or resident. The tournament went off without any major H&S issues.

Some six years later, the processes and procedures are still in place and seemingly rock solid, but frankly, the “culture” has yet to be transformed. Despite the uniforms, the rules and regulations and the endless (and rather high-handed) policing and treble-checking of the boxes that need ticking, in an environment where poverty and unemployment are still so unacceptably high, so is the desire to earn money – no matter what the personal risk. From mining to construction, and manufacturing to agriculture, the safety records are atrocious.

It is the culture that needs changing, not just the administrative processes. Far too many still start work with zero experience and zero training. As you have heard me say many times now, culture is so much more powerful than strategy. Culture can be the most dynamic of enablers but also the most immovable of obstacles, unless tackled and transformed with patience and resolve.

This demands strong and inspired leadership. On returning to Heathrow’s “best in class” Terminal 5, it struck me just how much the whole health and safety movement has been transformed here in the UK.  I’m old enough to remember people being allowed to smoke on flights – nowadays we think nothing of the safety notices screaming out in bright yellow and red everywhere. In fact, we all just about comply willingly with all the thorough searches and accept what we can and cannot take on board. We will queue endlessly to be checked and rechecked, without a murmur.

This is more than just the processes and procedures. It is a culture that has been both well-educated and transformed.

After three fabulous years, this is very sadly my final column for Business Reporter. I’m taking a little time off to finish writing my new book, Spike, which is about “strengths-based leadership”. We all have amazing strengths but society has become fixated with our weaknesses.

Thank you to the so supportive and professional team at Business Reporter and a very big thank you to all of you readers who have read and exchanged comments with me over the years. It has been an unforgettable privilege to serve you.

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