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What is the role of HR in health and safety compliance?

John Kilian

As people practitioners, HR has the unenviable task of balancing the best interests of employees with those of the organisation.

While most conscientious senior managers really don’t want to see their employees harmed at work, there are unfortunately still some who view occupational health and safety (OSH) as a burden and just another piece of legislation that will cost the business time, money and resources. Let’s face it: In tough economic times, and when there is already so much new legislation impacting business, OHS is the last thing you want to hear about.

The very mention of health and safety also makes many HR professionals shudder. Given that the directors of the organisation would rather focus on other operational and more “pressing” aspects of business, OSH often becomes just another HR issue.

3 reasons why health and safety is good for business

There is, however, a very strong and positive business case for OSH compliance. While most CEOs know their legal responsibilities, many still don’t know the significant benefits OSH has for business. As an HR professional, you can help make it clear to the directors that if increasing employee productivity, enhancing the company’s public reputation and increasing annual profits all sound like the type of things they would like to see more of, it’s time to start paying more attention to health and safety.

1.    Injuries and ill-health caused by poor working conditions can impose significant and often unrecognised financial and legal costs on business. Not to mention the ramifications that could result if the company directors are found to have been negligent. Word also gets out and a company with a poor health and safety record will be far less appealing in a tender bid than one which is already fully compliant and has a good health and safety record. Even those companies that do not tender for work still need to protect their reputation.

2.    A happy and healthy employee is a more productive employee. The last thing any employer wants is a group of increasingly disgruntled employees who might view their organisation’s management team as one that cares only about profits and nothing for employee well-being because this group will not be very productive. 

3.    Health and safety compliance can have an extensive and highly positive impact on your organisation. The costs involved in becoming OSH compliant and maintaining compliance are not at all high, when compared with the possible costs involved in an accident or fire. In short, health and safety compliance is a long-term investment in the well-being of a company, its staff and its reputation.

What is the role of HR in OSH?

While HR professionals are not expected to understand all the technical aspects of OSH, they can play an important role in administrating, communicating, facilitating and championing the process.

1.    The Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993, requires you, the employer, to bring about and maintain, as far as reasonably practicable, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the workers. However, you are not solely responsible for health and safety and the act recognises this. The Act is based on the principle that risks in the workplace must be addressed by communication and cooperation between the workers and the employer. The workers and the employer must share the responsibility for health and safety in the workplace. Both parties must proactively identify possible risks and develop control measures to make the workplace safe.

2.    Health and safety compliance can be quite technical and often requires the services of health and safety officer or an outsourced health and safety consultancy. However, HR is an important link between management and employees.

3.    While communicating the importance of occupational health and safety to management not just from a legal, but business case perspective, HR also plays an important role in ensuring that employee concerns are heard and raised. HR can in turn communicate the organisation’s commitment to its employees and their health and safety, further boosting employee morale and commitment to the organisation.

4.    In addition to overseeing policies and procedures, and ensuring employees adhere to these,  HR’s most important role is to ensure that every member of the organisation, from the top down, understands that OSH  is everyone’s responsibility.

Author: John Kilian is an SHE and risk management consultant at Safe Working Practice (SWP), which provides a management tool and safe systems of work, including: Safety files, evacuation plans and emergency procedures, audits, health and safety officers, inspections, documentation, advice and training to a wide range of organisations.