Managing Safety

No "worker error" in guide that places blame for accidents squarely on executive shoulders

Managing Safety Managing Safety: A Guide for Executives

By Kishor Bhagwati
Published by Wiley-VCH, 2006
218 pages, hardcover
ISBN 3-527-31583-7

Reviewed by Heather Angus-Lee

"Every accident is a result of management failure..."

So writes Kishor Bhagwati, a Switzerland-based independent consultant for safety and environmental management, in his 2006 book. Them's fightin' words - and the polar opposite of "worker error," the phrase that often surfaces in accident investigation reports. What? Accidents are YOUR fault - you, the fearless leader? Wait, don't click off this page! Read on and learn why this is actually a good thing. Bhagwati makes the same connection between safety best practices and profitability that WorkSafely does.

"Take care of your people and they will take care of your profits," Bhagwati writes. Before you dismiss Bhagwati as a foreigner, and one of those "green Euros" to boot, take note that his impressive resume includes consulting work for many American firms and a stint as H&S director of a major U.S. chemical company (albeit for its European division).

The author's fervent belief reflects the approach he's taken in boardrooms and on shop floors for decades: to challenge (and potentially upset) management; to shake them out of their state of stupor and denial about the achievability of zero accidents. He likes to upturn commonly held, systematic presumptions such as:

  • No, the safety professional (usually a peon reporting, erroneously, to HR) is not responsible for deciding what kind of safety training to offer the workforce - the managers who directly supervise the workers are.
  • And no, posters and a rare, brief inspection of the shop floor don't reduce the amount of accidents. Only walking the talk works - and that walk must be taken by the plant or office manager, as well as by corporate chieftains.
  • Punishing workers for delaying production by refusing to work in unsafe conditions does not work - but you'd be surprised how many companies do just that, notes Bhagwati. Instead, he writes, the forklift operator who refuses to unload a truck because it doesn't line up with the shipping dock should be rewarded for putting safety first.
  • "Safety first" - ouch! Those words make many workers grimace. Safety is too often enshrined as a value in mission statements framed and mounted in the lobbies of offices and factories, as is "our employees are our most valued assets." Bhagwati sees right through this kind of slick PR posing, wagging his "shame-on-you" finger at executives at every opportunity. He goes as far as to cite details of management failure in such high-profile disasters as Bhopal, India, and Chernobyl, plus many unidentified examples of management incompetence around H&S issues.

Fortunately, the author doesn't stick to just rebukes and warnings; he moves on in later chapters to offer positive advice and specific management tools, such as:

  • Procedures for safety "visits" (differentiated from "inspections" by a deeper, more respectful level of engagement with workers).
  • Actual scripts included, to help walk you through the art of talking to employees.
  • The methodology of an accident investigation ("no culprit is to be sought").
  • Suggested agendas and staff invitees for safety meetings.
  • Practical advice about lockout / tagout (OSHA set a 'LoTo' standard back in '89; Europe still has none). About 40 percent of fatal industrial accidents are caused by inappropriate LoTo behavior, Bhagwati claims.
  • Safety "to do" lists for top management, middle management in production and non-production management (HR, IT, finance, etc.).

Managing Safety is written in an accessible, anecdote-packed style, only slightly marred by the odd, awkward phrasing of English that betrays Bhagwati's roots in Bombay, training as an engineer in Germany and adult residence in Europe.

Too bad the cover design didn't reflect the punch packed by the inside contents. The publisher only barely rises above the look of a textbook - its illustration of an iceberg, above and beneath water, throws no elucidation on the subject matter.

What this image intends to depict, according to Bhagwati, is that people in management often see only the tip of the iceberg regarding the cost of accidents and illnesses at work. Beneath the surface lurks immense, longer-term costs of hiring replacements, deflated morale, and decreased productivity. The captains steering the corporate ship should be aware of the iceberg and its potential for damage.

Bhagwati writes:"Either [safety] starts at the very top, or it doesn't get anywhere." This book will get you somewhere good - if you're willing to make the trip.

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