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11th March, 2019

The Consequences Of Setting A Bad Health And Safety Example

It takes years to build up a positive health and safety culture within an organisation, particularly if you are trying to change from a negative health and safety culture. The consequences of setting a bad health and safety example can be catastrophic to this. Not only will you undermine your health and safety message, but you could also pave a more dangerous route for your team.

For many organisations, setting a clear health and safety message is a key priority in order to build a reputable business. Time and effort are spent to put policies, procedures, systems, forms and initiatives in place. But if you are setting a bad example for health and safety in the workplace, it doesn't really matter. Procedures and policies mean nothing if they are not followed through.

On paper, every box is ticked and every line crossed. But in practice, the positive health and safety culture the organisation is striving for won't develop.

This is a sign that your health and safety message is being undermined by the actions of people, usually in leadership positions.

You need to lead your team to safety. If you set a bad health and safety example, you will struggle to create a believable and sustainable health and safety message within your organisation.

Here are 4 ways you might undermine your health and safety message and set a bad health and safety example:

1. Setting the wrong message

Your health and safety message needs to be authentic. Otherwise, people see right through it. Worst of all, they won't believe anything that follows. Setting the wrong message is nearly as bad as setting no message.

Here's a classic example. Health and safety is our number one priority. Let's be honest about it. Unless you are a health and safety company, health and safety is not your number one priority, your number one priority is to make money and grow your company. And everyone knows it.

For example, if you are a builder, your number one priority is to build things in exchange for enough money to cover your costs and make a profit. There's no shame in that. Every business needs to make money to survive, and grow.

Of course, good health and safety is a vital part of that. The cost of poor health and safety will drag your business name into legal battles, fines and bad publicity. It will damage your reputation.

Health and safety may be important to you (and it should be), health and safety may be one of your top priorities (and it should be), but it is not your number one priority.

Create a message that is believable, and that can be embraced by your workforce at all levels.

2. Sending the wrong message

Do it safely, but do it by 5pm. Do it safely, but... is not the best way for the sentence to go. What message does this deliver to your workforce? Well, it means we want you to do it safely, but other things are more important. You have this target to meet which is the priority so if you need to throw safety out the window to meet the deadline, do it. We would like you to do it safely but more importantly, we would like you to get it done.

Obviously, this is a terrible example to set for your workforce. If you get this message from your boss, you know that health and safety isn't important enough to plan work schedules to give enough time getting work done safely.

The consequences of this could be workers cutting corners, skipping breaks, rushing work, or using the wrong equipment. All to meet the deadline. Of course, this increases the risk of accident, which will ironically delay things much more than doing things properly in the first place.

Try... "do it by 5pm, but do it safely". This gives a totally different emphasis on the importance of doing it safely. It still gives a target for getting work done, but says, no matter what, do it safely.

talk about safety
Managers and supervisors should deliver the right health and safety message

3. Breaking rules

Delivering your safety message requires strong leadership. Do as I say, not as I do. That's the sign of a weak leader. A leader who doesn't believe their own message. Or at least, doesn't think it applies to them. And if doesn't apply to them, why should anyone else listen?

Weak leadership will undermine your health and safety message, quite simply because the message won't reach your workforce. If your leaders set a bad example, the entire team will follow it.

The consequences are obvious. No one will follow the rules. It's pretty hard to enforce rules you just broke yourself. Imagine, a supervisor in sandals asking why a worker isn't wearing safety boots on site.

Supervisor: You need to be wearing safety boots on site, where are yours?

Worker: Where are yours?

Surely it would be completely hypocritical to discipline the worker without the supervisor facing the same punishment. Otherwise, workers would lose all respect for the people that are supposed to be leading the team.

If your leaders break the rules, turn up on site without PPE, skip safety meetings and don't get involved with health and safety, what message are they delivering? What example are they setting?

4. Failure to act

If you expect your workforce to report unsafe acts, or accidents, or near misses or all of the above, and then you do nothing or appear to do nothing, you are undermining the health and safety message. This sets a bad example for your workplace. It tells your team, we have a reporting system, but it's pointless. After the 5th of time of reporting that missing guard, or that faulty scaffold, they might not bother anymore.

The consequences of failing to act for a low-risk report, might not seem so bad. Maybe it was a missing safety notice. Maybe it was a broken lightbulb in a hardly used area of your workplace. You'll get it sorted later.

But what about when something more serious comes to that worker's attention. Are they going to take 5 minutes out of their day to send in another report that might get ignored? Maybe not. Now you don't know about something much more serious that could result in significant injury to a worker.

Failure to act when you should has a negative impact on the safety culture of your organisation. You will find that your workforce stop reporting, and you will lose the ability to act on situations before an accident occurs. It doesn't mean you have to get everything done right away. You may need to prioritise and schedule. But let your team know this, then they know it's in hand and has not been ignored.


Make sure your team has strong health and safety leadership. Find out the responsibilities of a health and safety manager.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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