30th November, 2023

The Consequences Of Setting A Bad Health And Safety Example

If you set a bad health and safety example, you'll struggle to create a believable health and safety message within your business, and your health and safety culture will suffer. Here are five ways you might undermine your health and safety message and set a bad health and safety example.

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It takes years to build up a positive health and safety culture within an organisation. This is particularly true if you are trying to change from a previously negative or poor health and safety culture.

The consequences of setting a bad health and safety example can be catastrophic to this. One action can undo all your hard work to improve your health and safety culture.

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 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.

Here's how health and safety can look in some businesses that have good health and safety on paper, but not in practice.

On paper, every box is ticked and every line crossed. They have the right policies, they have an annual review, they stick those documents on a shelf (or a hard drive) - and they forget about them until the next year.

If you have a health and safety message in place, but the positive health and safety culture the organisation is striving for won't develop, something is wrong.

It's 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 five ways you might undermine your health and safety message and set a bad health and safety example:

1. Not having an authentic health and safety message

Your health and safety message needs to be authentic. Otherwise, people see 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.

Is it?

Is that message authentic?

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.

building a wall

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 an authentic health and safety message. One that can be embraced by your workforce at all levels (because everyone believes in it).

2. Sending no message

Another way to set a bad health and safety example is not to bother putting rules and procedures into practice.

Here's how health and safety can look in some businesses that have good health and safety on paper, but not in practice.

On paper, every box is ticked and every line crossed. They have the right policies, they have an annual review, they stick those documents on a shelf (or a hard drive) - and they forget about them until the next year.

folders of documents

In practice, the positive health and safety culture the organisation is striving for won't develop, because your team isn't getting a health and safety message.

They see you putting the paperwork in place, and ticking the boxes, but they also see that it doesn't get applied to the work or activities, and so it can be ignored.

3. Sending the wrong message

"Do it safely, but do it by 5 pm."

Do it safely, but... is not the best way for any health and safety sentence to go. What message does this deliver to your workforce?

The wrong message!

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 to get work done safely.

And yes, I know we just agreed that health and safety is not your number one priority, and this might sound like a contradiction. But health and safety will help you achieve your top priority, completing your projects, winning clients, and making money (health and safety can even save you money!)

The consequences of sending the wrong message could be workers cutting corners, skipping breaks, rushing work, or using the wrong equipment - all to meet the deadline.

And of course, this increases the risk of an accident which will ironically delay things much more than doing things properly in the first place.

stop sign

Instead of "Do it safely, but do it by 5 pm." try... "Do it by 5 pm, but do it safely!".

This gives a 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.

And make sure your deadlines are realistic, or people will ignore your health and safety rules anyway.

4. 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 that 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 their example. If your leaders break the rules, so will your team.

The consequences are obvious - people will ignore your health and safety rules, and no one will follow the rules.

construction safety rules sign

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?"

It would be hypocritical to discipline the worker without the supervisor facing the same punishment. Otherwise, workers would lose all respect for the people who 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?

5. Failure to act

If you expect your workforce to report unsafe acts, accidents, 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.

safety procedures document

After the 5th of time of reporting that missing guard, or that faulty scaffold, they might not bother anymore. Why report it again when nothing gets done about it?

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 hurts the safety culture of your business. 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, who it's been assigned to and what the plan is - then they know it's in hand and don't feel ignored.


Want to improve health and safety in your business? It's easier when you work as a team, here's how to grow a positive health and safety culture.

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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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