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5 powerful ways to change perception of safety at your organisation

It’s a sad but true fact that wherever you go in the world, if you work in health and safety and someone asks what you do, there’s a sort of inward cringe as your reply escapes and you watch their eyes glaze over. Even in Texas, where it happened to me last week.

Health and safety has a pretty bad brand reputation. I equate it to something like the ŠKODA car company in the 80’s. As one of the oldest car companies in the world they were renowned for making a good quality product in their historical heyday. But somehow they lost focus to a point when I remember my favourite childhood joke in the playground was “what do you call a ŠKODA with a sunroof?” you can find the punchline quite easily.

Wheelbarrow full of gold

Nowadays they’ve transformed that negativity into a positive message. Everyone knows it’s cool to be an outsider, to think differently and to go with something that’s not mainstream because of its reputation. That, along with a relentless focus on quality (helped by their parent company VW) means that ŠKODA cars now have an outstanding reputation.

I’m not sure if health and safety ever started off with a good reputation, but I know for definite that it has a bad one now, and a reputation which appears to be getting worse.  Yet for those of us in this industry, you can sense the frustration – how can safety be perceived so negatively, when it’s driven by such positive aims like protection, quality, happiness and productivity?

It’s time to join the fight in defence of health and safety, alongside positive PR from leaders like the HSE. Here are five suggestions for improving its reputation at your organisation:

  1. It starts with you. If you feel a little shame describing your job, that sends a negative message so find ways to sell your job with pride to others. A colleague of mine always answers the “what do you do?” question with “I save lives”. It’s true – we all stop people getting hurt, let’s feel proud of it.
  2. Take a leaf from Apple. I bought my first digital music player in 1999 at a time when it was preferable to hide it in a drawer because it marked me out as a bit of a geek (another name that once had a derogatory meaning). Five years later, Apple’s iPod was so cool it rapidly sold out and everyone wanted one. It’s now cool to be a geek. Changing the perception of a brand means you need to market and sell it more effectively, and perhaps even make it a bit exciting. Safety won’t sell itself and it certainly won’t make itself exciting!
  3. Focus, don’t compromise. Don’t try and improve everything about safety all at once because it’ll look like you’re only half-heartedly focussed on it. Imagine the employees are your customers, take each safety issue one-at-a-time and properly crack it, putting as much effort into each issue as you would launching a new product to your customers.
  4. Embrace the latest technology. Your staff already use exciting technology at home: smartphones, social media and other connected devices. If you ask them to share safety information using an old Access database that the gap year IT student cobbled together sends the wrong message about how important sharing safety information is. Try something more engaging.
  5. Develop safety brand advocates. People buy from people they trust. And who do they trust? Well, people like them. If people like them start talking about how great safety is, guess what – they’ll buy the message. Use that to your advantage, by training non-safety professionals amongst your staff to be ‘safety brand advocates’ or ‘champions’, you’ll see the difference immediately and the effects are proven to last.

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