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Workplace Safety: 5 Lessons for Big Business From the Small Business Point of View

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Workplace Safety: 5 Lessons for Big Business From the Small Business Point of View

As a Small Business owner, what are your first thoughts when I say “Workplace Health and Safety“.  Be truthful now…

Did you think “absolutely essential – I do everything I can. I know all my obligations, our safety systems are all up to date, and everyone is trained in safe work procedures”? Or was your reaction more like “OMG – all that safety stuff just does my head in. There’s so many regulations, I don’t understand them and it’s all just more cost for my business.”?

Recently I was asked to present at a Supply Chain Symposium on the topic of “Safety in the Supply Chain – from the Small Business point of view”.  As with many other subjects, there is a huge amount of research and writing on supply chain safety – all from the point of view of the large organisation.

I certainly had my own ideas on the subject, but I did some research to validate my perspective. All the research subjects were the kind of people I work with – the ones who are really making an effort to improve their business, understand the place of safety in their growth path, and are completely committed to safe workplaces.  Some are award-winning businesses.

Terminology and skills

The first issue raised was the use of new terminology and jargon, and expectations of skills. Like most industries, the safety industry has its own “lingo”, not understood by “outsiders”.  Then, the Small Business owner is presumed (expected) to have all the skills required.  It’s one thing to be told “You must do a Job Hazard Analysis”.   But if you don’t know what that is, or how to do it, how can you possibly comply?

Inconsistent application of rules

Health and Safety systems in many large organisations develop over time. As a consequence, it sometimes seems that the companies themselves don’t know what they want, or they have conflicting rules.

Small Businesses often see different rules applied for employees and “others”, where a contractor is subject to different rules or treatment.  Or, when somebody within the big company really wants something done, the rules are bent for just that occasion.

All these scenarios create frustration (even anger), delays and increased costs on the part of the small supplier.

An actual commitment to safety

The feelings on this are best summed up by a quote from one of my research respondents.

“… two things I’ve noticed. 1. The more companies scream about HEALTH AND SAFETY the worse they are. 2. Most of the time it’s just tick and flick… (The remaining words in this quote have been censored).”

Talking about safety doesn’t make people safe.  Actions must reflect words.

Inconsistent systems

When Small Businesses supply more than one large customer, there is a 99.999 % chance that their various safety systems will be different. Again, this creates confusion and cost for the Small Business owner as they try to comply with everybody’s expectations.

Cost is NOT seen as an issue. Well, cost is an issue, but not in a “SME whinge about the cost of all that regulation” kind of way…  but only if it is actually contributing to safety. This is the most important conclusion that I came away with. Proactive SME’s pursue excellence in safety management, recognise its value and allocate the resources to do so.

“Safety is incorporated in the company’s financial budget”.

“Safety brings confidence and motivation in workers”. 

“Lack of safety at a work place can actually turn out to be so costly to an organisation”.

But where the conditions described earlier in this article occur, Small Business owners take issue.

“The bull**** around getting the right ticket so you can operate a forklift is crazy!!  I don’t understand why it costs 3 days of wages, plus $750 for the course to be told how to drive a forklift”.

So what’s the lesson for big business?

I’ve tried to summarise here the practices that will make safety in supply chains much more achievable for big organisations.

  • Is your safety system really keeping people safe? Or is it “Safety by the Kilo”, where you just keep throwing paper and money at it?
  • Don’t change the rules every second Thursday over afternoon tea.  Clarity, Simplicity, Consistency.
  • Think, and ask. Before you introduce sweeping changes, assess the impact on your smaller suppliers.
  • Share information freely.  Your small suppliers may actually have some good ideas.
  • Don’t ask them to have a 5-star safety system, and then screw them on price.

If big organisations want to promote safe practices throughout their supply chains, these tips will ensure that more of their Small Business suppliers will be in that first, proactive group.  Everybody will be a whole lot happier – and safer.

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