top of page

What good health and safety looks like

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

Now before you say it looks like a Donut, have you ever wondered what exactly is meant when safety practitioners ask the question: "What does good safety look like?"

Someone once told me in order to achieve good health and safety, an organisation must have a good safety framework, much like baking a cake. You can only bake beautiful and tasty cakes if you have a tried and tested recipe that delivers good results.

The most commonly used cake ingredients includes flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil or margarine, a liquid, and leavening agents, such as baking soda or baking powder. Early cakes in England were essentially bread: the most obvious differences between a "cake" and "bread" were the round, flat shape of the cakes, and the cooking method, which turned cakes over once while cooking, while bread was left upright throughout the baking process. Wikipedia

So what exactly does good safety look like? Is it the bread type? The type where safety is what you wear; you have your PPE and a sign on the door saying Safety First. Let's take a look at what these types of safety environments look like. When I started out in the safety field as a consultant some years ago, it was always the same, when arriving at a workplace to conduct a health and safety performance assessment. The same, brand new high-vis vests, the sign-in book at reception and the induction somewhere along the lines of, "if something happens then follow me", with an attempt of a chuckle. The manager would sometimes come out of the office and say: "You are welcome to look around" and "please let us know if we are safe." "Ask reception to show you around". It was around here that I would have to stop the manager and explain the parameters of the assessment and what it would involve. See, the above is not Safety, it is a misguided idea that people have of what safety is, and we only have ourselves to blame for this. This compliance-based thinking is outdated and against modern-day safety thinking. Safety will never be a sign-in book nor a sign that reads "safety first". If the receptionist, who is hardly ever allowed to suggest anything in safety meetings, is going to show me around the workshop, then you don't have the motivation for capability and capacity to work safely and the assessment is most probably going to be a waste of time. I have learned over time that when I hear these types of comments I can without fail, expect appalling safety practices on the shop floor.

Safety should never be about compliance alone

Over time I realised that the motivation for safety for many organisations was to be compliant with distorted requirements of what safety is. I also realised that there are workplaces that are "different". When I visited these "different" workplaces and started talking to the managers, and the tradies, I noticed that they do something very different. They talked in groups about ways to work safely and the managers took part in these discussions. The results were amazing. Very often, they understood the risks and most of the required controls involved in their line of work. What's more, the managers listened to the workers, asked questions, and cautioned against breaking the rules to make deadlines, warning that it compromises safety. What was missing, however, was a coordinated method of continual improvement of safety processes, systems and procedures and the proactive management of safety before each task. This made me realise that there were two types of workplaces, the bread type and the cake type. For the latter, it always comes down to motivation to do the right thing and not just to focus on being compliant. The culture of these "cake-type" workplaces portrayed a culture of caring. They wanted to do something more than just be compliant, but it was evident that they needed help to achieve that. What they needed was a system which they can follow to help them manage their risks.

Baking the safety cake

So, how is, "What good safety looks like ", then achieved? To help my clients, I developed a health and safety management system which evolved over time to what I refer to as the Safety Improvement Group (SIG) Health & Safety Management System. The framework follows the same Plan-Do-Check-Act (Deming) cycle as all modern management systems but also incorporates the new (2018) OH&S Standards ISO45001

"If you cannot describe what you are doing as a process, you do not know what you're doing. Edward Deming".

At the heart of the SIG management system, are the four chambers (staple ingredients) believed to be essential to effectively manage health & safety risk, or any kind of risk for that matter. What is needed, is Leadership, Risk Management and Worker Engagement. Add to this Trusted Advice and you have a bomb-proof system (recipe) to manage health and safety. By combining these four core elements an organisation will be in good shape to continuously and effectively manage its health and safety risks.

The Safety Improvement Group (SIG) Health & Safety Management System

This article does not intend to explain the system itself in micro detail but rather to explore the elements (ingredients) needed to achieve good health and safety in any organisation and is available for free download in the link below.

Download PDF • 2.02MB

Central to the SIG management system, is the Safety Improvement Group. This group is the vehicle to organise safety, it enables effective engagement needed for communication, coordination, collaboration and consultation. In larger organisations more than one group may be required, therefore, it becomes a Safety Improvement Group Network (SIGNET). This network should consist of groups or teams who are effectively engaged across the organisation in Planning, Doing, Checking and Acting on Safety aspects. Essential requirements for these groups to be effective is senior leadership, worker involvement, health & safety representatives and trusted advisors

Artwork by the author. The Safety Improvement Group. The Safety Improvement Group Network (SIGNET) is the intellectual property of Heinrich Havemann

The primary function of the SIGNET is to get the whole organisation involved in managing health and safety, therefore, it consists of what is known as a Team of Teams. This concept was adapted from a system pioneered by General Stanley McChrystal, United States Army. In a book he co-authored, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015), McChrystal talks about how he brought together teams of Special Forces from different branches of service and nations to function as a Team of Teams. It entailed that the Special Forces (SF) groups planned (PLAN) together. During Operations in Iraq, Special Forces groups from the coalition were brought together and were known as Task Force Black. Military Special Forces are, traditionally, not in favour of working (DO) together with other teams on operations. They prefer to work within their own team setting. McCrystal did not change that independency model, he did, however, change how these teams plan for and interact during operations. What was significant, was how they shared information and how they worked together when planning operations. In the planning rooms, there would be members from special operator teams from different nations and arms of service. The end result of this cooperative, integrated planning was astounding. Night after night the operators would hit insurgent car bomb factories. This Team of Teams would sift (CHECK) through intelligence gathered, analyse and build a picture and share it with operational elements on the ground to act on (ACT). Included in this combined team were specialists from other arms of service, for example, from the Air Force, who would be able to advise on Air Assets’ availability and capability. Within a very short time span, Task Force Black (TFB) was able to deny the enemy the ability to make car bombs in any of the main Iraqi city centres.

Not only did McChrystal change the top-down command structure, but he also empowered each team and individual to make decisions based on the shared intelligence and overall goal. This is what General McChrystal said about Leadership in this structure:

“the necessity of real-time innovation and problem-solving requires integrative and transparent leadership that empowers individual team member"
“trust, common purpose, shared awareness, and the empowerment of individual team members to act”

If this concept equates to success in military operations, a traditional strict command and control environment, then business leaders in the civilian arena may want to take notice and read Team of Teams.

According to General McChrystal, Team of Teams are:

“a large command that captured at scale the traits of agility normally limited to small teams”.

In Team of Teams, McCrystal talks about shared consciousness and empowered execution:

“carefully maintained set of centralized forums for bringing people together”,
“empowered execution is a radically decentralized system for pushing authority to the edges of the organization”.

General McCrystal demonstrated in Iraq what happens when a leader collaborates, coordinates and consults with teams in a centralised forum. His methodology changed from leading by command and control to leading by consultation and collaboration. This is the primary objective of the Safety Improvement Group.

How often have you heard that safety is everyone's responsibility? The principles that McChrystal demonstrated in a military setting embody this. If safety is everyone's responsibility, then the people at risk should be involved in managing the risks.

Competence and Capacity

Of course, it would be reckless to allow autonomy in the absence of capacity and competency. Therefore, for this system to work, it must be supported by training, coaching and mentoring activities, based on a needs analysis of the organisation. The Health and Safety Advisor plays a key role in this space.

Sifting through intelligence and making sense of data

At the heart of the Safety Improvement Group (SIG) Health & Safety Management System lies the four chambers namely Leadership, Worker Engagement, Risk Management and Trusted Advice. What feeds this system is intelligence and data. Think of it as the bloodstream fueling the heart and the rest of the body. Without good data, there can't be effective monitoring and review and certainly no improvement. Similar to how Task Force Black utilised data (intelligence) to achieve success in operations, it is important to invest in health and safety data management software. This is necessary to support auditing and reporting functions through accurately capturing lead and lag data essential to assess performance. If this can be done in real-time even better

Nathan Hight Co-founder of Safe365 says this about lead vs lag indicators:

"A sporting analogy to help further understand this concept, which many business leaders and safety professionals have found helpful, is the notion of a high-performance sports team sitting around at training the week before a big game and deciding what the score is going to be. For most people, this would be a very strange manner to prepare for a big game. Instead, time, energy and focus is placed on working on the knowledge, skills, processes, teamwork and alignment in a game philosophy which have been deemed to maximise the probability of a favorable result, thus we hear many sports professionals talking about “trusting the processes and the result will take care of itself”. In a health, safety and well-being context, using data to provide an ongoing feedback loop on how well-developed the factors are that will improve the probability of a positive safety outcome are well worth the time, investment and effort in unlocking better safety and business performance.

All too often measurement is undertaken ‘after the fact’ and thus, we have a deep lagging indicator culture.

The downside of using lag indicators in isolation of lead indicator data, is the lagging data points are pointing to (usually) negative outcomes that have already occurred rather than more predictive data points that may indicate a vulnerability, that if addressed, can reduce the probability of a negative outcome occurring in the first place. This provides for a data-driven continuous improvement approach that doesn’t rely on failures to stimulate learning and subsequent improvements."

Risk Management

Safety is not about stopping any and all activities which may lead to harm. The vision of safety is a state where reckless action is eliminated. There is no better way to achieve good safety practices than to involve senior management, the workforce and competent advisors to identify and control real risk. This is Sensible Risk Management, meaning allocating resource to mitigate real risk where it matters most, when it matters most.

Continual Improvement

If ever there had been a game with no finish line, then it is health & safety. As a consultant, I was frequently confronted by managers who thought that safety was finite. I heard the following a thousand times

" Just tell us what we need to do to be safe?"

The hardest bit was to change their mindset of “there's a finish line.” Safety isn't finite, it is not a sprint to safety, it is not even an endurance race, take a listen to Simon Sinek in the video below on FINITE vs INFINITE games.

"The minute you have senior executives obsessing about the short game, the game is lost." Simon Sinek

Todd Conklin internationally recognised organisational psychologist, health and safety expert and author of The 5 Principles of Human Performance: A contemporary update of the building blocks of Human Performance for the new view of safety, perhaps says it better:

"Safety is not an outcome to manage, but a capacity like the battery on your mobile phone. Mobile phone battery levels are not fixed or permanent. The power on your mobile is a capacity which allows calls to be made and received."

What it requires, is a charge when required. When do I need to charge my phone to have the ability to make and receive calls? This requires planning


According to the free management library, a common failure in many kinds of planning is that the plan is never really implemented. It would be reckless to imply that the four requirements (Leadership, Worker Management, Risk Management and Trusted Advice) thrown together, equals good safety. The PDCA cycle remains the recipe and it starts with planning. I have deliberately left this element for last although it is the first element in the PDCA cycle. I cannot stress this enough, it is all about planning. To bake the perfect safety cake, it is essential to start with planning. It would pay to invest in good safety advice, to assist the organisation to develop a strategy and tactical requirements to employ. The plan assists with the implementation and continuous improvement of the management system. In its basic element, the vision is the big picture, in this case, “what good looks like”. What would it look like when we get there? When there are capacity and capability to manage safety?

"Failing to plan is planning to fail" Anonymous

When all these elements and requirements are present and functioning and NOT the absence of accidents, an organisation can be labelled as one that is actively performing and continually improving it’s health and safety management beyond compliance. This is an organisation that understands health and safety management at a mature level. This is the cake we are striving for. This is what good looks like.

As a closing thought for the Safety Industry, can we stop setting expectations of compliance with things that do not deliver a safer world of work?

In the next edition, I will be exploring compliance with things that do not deliver a safer world of work. Could compliance be a barrier for good health and safety in some cases, what are your thoughts?

© Copyright Heinrich Havemann - The Safety Improvement Group.

The Safety Improvement Group Network (SIGNET) is the intellectual property of

Heinrich Havemann

#Teamofteams #Compliance #whatgoodlookslike #Safetyimprovementgroup