AMSJ » Sudden Change – Are our front line leaders ready

Sudden Change – Are our front line leaders ready

01 Compliant State

Management of risks in the workplace is no easy task in any industry. It involves significant effort and investment towards designing and implementing Health, Safety and Environmental Management Systems and in particular practical, safe systems of work.

Practical implementation of those systems is the most difficult part. Core responsibility for this is rightfully placed on front line leadership, in particular on Managers, Superintendents and Supervisors in charge of the operational work groups. In the past, they have been actively supported on the ground by Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) professionals, however recent trends in some industries indicate a significant shift away from this established practice. In recent times, a number of organisations have significantly reduced the numbers of OHS staff and allocated all workplace OHS responsibilities and deliverables to front line leadership. The approach appears to be based on a widely acknowledged paradigm placing all responsivities and ownership of risk on line management. It is also assumed that line management should be able to handle all responsibilities and associated issues, making the close shop floor support from OHS personnel unnecessary. The approach has had a profound effect in several industries. In some organisations, OHS departments have been reduced to no more than a couple of people, working in the office on data entry, compliance and corporate governance.

This methodology is driven by a range of factors such as global and domestic economic issues but is also heavily influenced by practices and feedback received from some well-developed overseas organisations which use a high ratio of OHS advisor – staff in their operations. From the perspective of the corporate senior decision-maker in an Australian organisation with a low advisor – employees ratio, it is hard not to compare labour costs and think about potential savings which can be made by reducing this support function. This is especially attractive as those overseas organisations seemingly operate normally with a fraction of those numbers on the ground and with world-class safety and reliability performance.

In addition, the economic boom of recent years had created a surplus of safety practitioners. It needs to be acknowledged that from the business perspective, the quality and value for money has not always been there, to put it mildly. As the high growth period ended, reductions in OHS staff and salaries started to occur alongside a significant increase in line management responsibility for risk. Once this trend started, it caused a chain reaction across several industries. Assumptions of this nature can be very contagious as they are based on the perceived financial benefits which often trigger an immediate reaction from the competition. It was very much the case of ‘if their front line management can do it, so can ours’.

Recent economic downturn has created another interesting effect. In a drive towards further cost reductions, many organisations are engaging external business consultants to evaluate organisational structures, efficiency and processes. In relation to risks management, two specific things tend to occur at this point.

The first one is a ‘one size fits all’ approach pertaining to balancing production and protection. Often the rationale behind a consultant’s advice for reduction in OHS staff is based on a previous experience in other organisations, some of which are highly advanced and have highly developed front line leadership. This of course is not the case everywhere, which often leads to an assumption that the high OHS staff manning levels are mostly contributable to business inefficiencies. Complex and specific individual organisational factors such as organisational culture in ownership of risk or core technical and leadership competencies of front line management can easily be overlooked in this process, which is a major issue. Just like any other organisations, business improvement consultancies are not perfect. They are not immune to a range of entrenched beliefs and paradigms, not all of which are based on a proper balance of production and protection, sound understanding and management of risks or a strategic benefit for the client organisation. Short term versus long term thinking and associated benefits cannot be overemphasized at this point. Organisations need to exercise caution. There is a major difference between being lean and being ‘anorexic’ in an organisational functional sense. Advices suggesting significant reductions in critical support functions deserve a deep analysis before being adopted. Discovery of the ‘anorexic’ organisational function takes time and usually occurs through a range of business losses which is never a good way to learn.

Similarly, acting on the comparable advice, some organisations have affected drastic change in their most senior corporate structures, demoting and in some cases completely removing senior HSE and risk management functional representation. This is a very concerning trend as this practice has very high potential to tip the internal balance of production and protection. The imbalance in perception of risk starts at the top but it never stops at that point. It has a cascading negative effect on the way risks are viewed, perceived and ultimately managed at all organisational levels, all the way to the sharp end and practical execution of work. Risk imbalance of this kind can create organisational behavior and practices which can be very damaging to the overall organisational safety culture.

Due to the intangible nature of safety and risk, senior decision-makers are as prone to a number of human fallibilities as anyone else. They too need to be reminded, influenced, coached and mentored. The presence of competent risk management professionals at the most senior organisational levels is a critical factor in promoting free-thinking, a culture of openness and a realistic view of risk and business losses. Their absence and lowering of their status negates the organisational values and importance of safety and it has a negative impact on workers perception of what is really important. If the workers perceive the organisation in this way, chances of good safety performance and reliability are severely diminished. To be successful in maintaining a good balance of production and protection, it is critical for an organisation to equalize status, importance, and presence of HSE function at all stratum levels.

Does this mean that we have entered a new revolutionary period where we are likely to see a major breakthrough in the way front line operations manage risks, health and safety? Is this the beginning of the end of the OHS profession as we know it?

Not likely. It looks to be no more than the latest trend which is bound to be recognised and reversed in the future, sadly, most probably, as a result of various forms of business losses. Strategies described in this article represent management approaches which are not sustainable.

Although the reduction of OHS professionals has produced some immediate and limited short term financial benefits, issues have started to emerge almost simultaneously. For careful observers operating in the industry, it became clear that in many (if not the majority) of cases, front line management struggled to perform to desired expectations. There is a simple reason for that – front line management was simply not ready for something like that. Traditionally front line leaders have never been required to have that kind of knowledge, skill and experience, which was why they had HSE professionals imbedded in their operations. As they have always relied on that support, they have not developed to the level which would enable them to completely replace OHS support functions. Admittedly, this was always a very high expectation. There are very few organisations worldwide which have managed to achieve this highly evolved state of operations, and at great cost. Although line management is accountable for safety, this accountability requires other critical elements for success such as the authority, responsibility and above all, knowledge and skills for achieving desired performance.

Some of the issues which emerged as a result of those approaches manifested as simplifications of critical processes. A good example is an incident investigation process where, under the new approach, root causal analysis of a complex occurrence was reduced to one page report with an expected limit of one single root cause. In some organisations, incidents (including injuries) below certain rating no longer required an investigation process. Knowledge of front line leaders and time issues seem to be the key issues.

Relatively soon after introduction of these changes, a number of organisations experienced significant serious events; however it is possibly still a little early to firmly link those events to OHS staff reductions, although the cause – consequences relationship between those two factors seems worthy of further analysis.

Front line leadership is indeed responsible and accountable for safety however, there are some critical pre-conditions which need to exist in order for this approach to be successful. Front line leadership firstly needs to achieve a solid competency in a number of areas. At the minimum, front line leaders need to be:

  • motivated and empowered to lead
  • technically knowledgeable and evolved to an appropriate stratum level
  • good communicators with a good degree of emotional intelligence
  • competent in understanding human factors and human reliability issues
  • skillful and knowledgeable in a range of technical HSE and risk management strategies, especially in relation to critical systems of work
  • conversant with modern management, leadership and team building concepts and best practices
  • able to hold others accountable, apply sound operational practices and concepts of operational discipline.

Those key competencies are precisely what the overseas companies using a high OHS advisor – employee ratio are developing long before a person is appointed in a
role of front line leader. In this author’s experience, the standard of leadership quality, technical, operational and risk management competencies in those organisations has been set very high. For example, in order to be successful, an internal or external applicant for a supervisor’s role in some high performing organisations needs to have experience and qualifications very close to those of an average OHS advisor. As a rule, this is not the case in most Australian industries.

None of this is to be taken in any negative way; it just shows the level of diligence and importance some organisations are placing on the knowledge and capability of their front line leaders. They understand that they are the key to operational excellence and are worth the expenditure invested in their selection, training and development. They genuinely believe and act in a way which demonstrates an understanding that an organisation first needs to develop people and people will develop the business. There is certainly a great lesson to be learnt.

In this author’s view, although motivated and very task competent, our supervisors are often missing adequate functional stratum separation from the workforce. They are often inadequately trained in practical leadership and risk management strategies and have difficulties in meeting their legislative and functional obligations. Fast-tracking a process of a complete handover of responsibility for risk management without appropriate OHS support, training and development of front line leadership is not a sound strategy. Management of risk, human performance and implementation of operational discipline are not areas where a supervisor should be learning ‘on the run’. Such approaches have a high potential to have negative impacts on production, safety, reliability and retention of front line leaders.

From the accident causation perspective, the reasons for inadequate front line leadership skills are often one of the common systemic factors identified in major catastrophic events. Like a last piece of the puzzle, they have the potential to introduce critical causational factors or set off a mechanism which can align various systemic and environmental failures to produce a significant negative event. As we know from the history of major industrial disasters worldwide, once accident ingredients are present and mechanism of occurrence is in motion, length of time and selection of particular human or system failures involved in causation of those events can often be a random phenomenon. One of the ways of interrupting this mechanism is to critically rethink our approach and consider seriously investing in training and development of front line leaders, in combination with a slow and gradual handover of the line management responsibility for management of risk. On this journey, close support from the competent multifunctional risk management professionals is critical for success.

Creating business management systems is a very labour intensive and expensive exercise. Practical implementation is even more difficult. It is full of barriers and issues front line leaders must overcome to successfully implement safe systems of work, however in many cases adequate resources, support and training are not provided.

This begs the question, why would any organisation invest money and effort into developing management systems and risk prevention strategies, and then fail to adequately train critical layers of leadership to implement them?

Some of the possible answers include:

  • Failure to recognise a problem and follow through – In many cases, organisations are simply oblivious to front line leadership issues and do not understand where the process of leadership failure begins and ends. Their risk management professionals are either not successful in communicating those issues to senior decision-makers for consideration, or have not been heard.
  • Illusion of Compliance – Some organisations may believe that having HSE systems on paper and available to personnel satisfies legislative compliance and protection. This is of course incorrect, as to be considered compliant, safe systems of work need to be actually implemented in practice. Those organisations erroneously believe that the important job is done once system documents are uploaded to a corporate database and that actual implementation ‘takes time’ and that will somehow happen, ‘eventually’. Of course, there is little sense in not fully implementing systems and processes designed to prevent business losses and provide protection, especially since the money has already been spent on their development.
  • Training and Development Costs – Training and development of front line leadership can be expensive. It can certainly be perceived by some decision-makers as a high risk, unnecessary cost for something which is easily lost when a front line leader leaves to work for another employer. The view is that such investment is not wise as it can easily benefit someone else. This is a very short-sighted thinking as the real concern should be about what happens if front line leaders are not developed and they actually remain in the organisation unchanged. Organisations cannot progress and evolve if their front line leaders are stagnating.
  • Risk Aversion – The cost view is driven from the flawed risk view some decision-makers have when it comes to training and development of supervisory staff. The disabling factor here is an inability to see potential financial benefits due to the perceived uncertainty of rewards, versus the certainty of cost savings, which is visible and immediately satisfying. This view has strong counterproductive impacts on organisational effectiveness, safety and productivity.

What is most fascinating is that as the economy worsens, the greater aversion there is to training and development of leaders. It seems that when facing economic challenges, the answer to all problems becomes a range of cost cutting strategies. Very little consideration is given towards improving business profitability by increasing productivity through improved team effectiveness and leadership practices. This remains a challenge and an opportunity for improvement in many organisations.

Organisational pathways towards developing more competent front line leaders should be a carefully planned, structured and documented process with a firm set of targets. It should have an action plan involving a range of strategies aimed at developing each particular leader. On this journey, leaders should, at the very least, receive specific training in safety leadership, key management skills, technical risk management, application of operational discipline, understanding of human factors, individual and team development and performance management strategies.

Until front line leaders reach the level of proficiency required to successfully manage risks in the workplace, they should continue to be supported by OHS and other support personnel such as human resources and more senior leaders. Only when a vast majority of leaders have reached the final stages in their development can an organisation consider a reduction in the numbers of OHS ground support staff. Even then, this needs to be a cautious step change and a careful and robustly risk-assessed strategy.

In the meantime, every organisation which has embarked on severe reduction in OHS support to its front line leadership should be asking a range of questions such as:

How good are our front line leaders in the following areas?

  • safety leadership
  • understanding of practical risk management strategies and OHS principles
  • conducting good incident root causal analysis
  • implementation of operational discipline in the execution of work
  • management of people and understanding of human factors
  • team building
  • communication.

If the answers are not satisfactory, organisations need to ask themselves if the strategy of fast-tracking line management accountability and reducing the numbers of OHS personnel is appropriate for them. Large overseas organisations and consultancies which have advocated this approach in Australia have been developing their culture and leadership at a great cost and for a number of decades to be able to reach this point. It seems that their message has not been understood in its entirety

“If the answers are not satisfactory, organisations need to ask themselves if the strategy of fast-tracking line management accountability and reducing the numbers of OHS personnel is appropriate for them.”


MOccHlth&Saf, CPMSIA, RSP (Aust.)

Goran is an experienced risk management professional with over 24 years of operational and Occupational Health and Safety experience gained with a combination of large multinational client and contractor organisations. He has held a number of senior HSE roles in various industries.

Goran holds a Masters of Occupations Safety and Health and Bachelor of Science (processing)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the authors alone and do not reflect any formal opinion of the authors current or former employers, clients or any other party. They are provided for the purpose of general discussion. Before relying on the material in this article, readers should carefully make their own assessment and check with other sources as to its accuracy, currency, completeness and relevance for their purpose.

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