Safety first? Is it possible for a rental business to focus too much on safety?

By Murray Pollok and keving29 April 2013

Kevin Appleton, IRN columnist and former CEO of Lavendon Group.

Kevin Appleton, IRN columnist and former CEO of Lavendon Group.

Safety first? Is it possible for a rental business to focus too much on safety? No, says Kevin Appleton.

Across the rental industry, albeit with some variations from country to country, safety has become a dominating theme of the last decade. Indeed, to read the annual reports and promotional brochures of some rental businesses you would think that this was all they care about and focus on. Which provokes an obvious, if slightly heretical, question; can we focus too much on safety?

Being a product of the British educational system I will answer that, as my teachers always taught me I should, by re-defining the question. If we focus exclusively on talking the language of safety, but change little in the way of culture and behaviour then I would strongly argue that it is pointless and counter-productive.

I would contend that most staff, working for companies who suddenly “discover” safety, will jump to the conclusion that this is either a cynical piece of company self-protection (“We told you to look after yourselves so don’t blame us when you have an accident”) or an equally cynical piece of marketing (“Our customers tell us that safety is important, so we’re going to say that we agree with them”). If your staff don’t believe it then attitudes and behaviours won’t change and safety performance won’t improve either.

A positive approach to safety has to be heartfelt. If you are in a company that is genuine, you will see managers moved emotionally when they talk about safety incidents that have resulted in injury or worse. You will also see managers who are inflamed with a passion to make the working environment better and who are intervening to identify and reduce risk on a daily basis. When this happens the fever spreads to other staff and, in the best environments, they become every bit as passionate about ensuring colleagues and customers are given every chance of returning safely home at the end of the working day.

Other characteristics of safety-passionate businesses are that there is no budget limit on doing things that will genuinely improve the risk environment of customers and staff. Sales will be refused and capital will be spent, even in tough environments, because there is no value placed above the duty to look after people’s physical welfare.

There is a clear understanding in my company that we will never turn down a capital expenditure request that is directed at reducing genuine risk. Neither will we fail to discipline someone who has wilfully put themselves or others at danger, even if their suspension or dismissal puts a short-term stress on the business.

So does that mean that safety is for those companies who are less concerned with making a decent profit? I would strongly argue “no”. There is a real cost to workplace injury, and an even higher cost attached to workplace fatalities. This cost can be in providing staff cover, in insurance premiums, in reputation, in site delays and stoppages and, finally, in the trust and engagement of your own staff. If you treat people as if they are of no account, then they will start to behave as if they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. That way lies ruin.

The other thing that is remarkable about genuinely safety-focused businesses is that the order, discipline and care that are necessary to produce a safe working environment start to spill over into other areas of the business. Invoices get more accurate, phones get answered quicker, and customers get treated with respect, because people start to understand that care and attention to detail matter, because their business is saying that they, as individuals, also matter to the business.

So, is it possible to focus too much on safety? Never. However, be aware of the dangers of confusing a genuine and meaningful focus, with a neat but meaningless slogan.

The author: Kevin Appleton is a former CEO of Lavendon Group and now executive chairman of Travis Perkins' £1.5 billion builders merchants division in the UK. Mr Appleton writes a column in every issue of IRN.

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