Keeping safety in mind at SUEZ

Dr Tracey Leghorn
by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Business Services Officer | SUEZ recycling and recovery UK
Have you ever had that nagging feeling you should have said something in a tricky situation but didn’t, for whatever reason? You may have hesitated because you didn’t want to rock the boat or perhaps were unsure how your comment would be received. And then it was too late. The moment was gone.

Usually, the only consequence is a mild sense of irritation. But what if, instead, a colleague or you were physically injured in an accident as a result of your omission?

Analysis of safety incidents across the waste sector shows that this scenario is all too common. At some point, a situation becomes dangerous, and nobody present says “Stop”!

Why does this happen and what can we do about it? These are questions we’re addressing during SUEZ Safety Week, from 22 to 26 April 2024 as we launch a campaign, ‘Speak Up and Stop’.

Identifying the barriers

So, in general, what is it that prevents employees from calling out unsafe behaviour or hazards in the workplace when they spot them? There are multiple factors – some personal, others relating to the organisation and its systems and procedures.

Many people just want to keep their head down and get on with their work, avoiding the potential for friction or conflict. That course becomes more appealing if there is no established system for reporting safety concerns or any forum where they can be openly discussed without fear of being ridiculed or rebuffed. Worse, unsafe practices may have become normalised, so workers barely notice anymore or feel it’d be futile to raise the matter with their colleagues or managers.

But even in companies where speaking up about safety concerns is encouraged, managers are supportive of the policy, and there are clearly signposted opportunities, some employees may still hold back. It could be due to shyness or lack of confidence, or a phenomenon behavioural scientists call ‘diffusion of responsibility’. Imagine you’re sitting at home, watching the TV at night, and you hear a scream outside in the street. You peep out the window and see some altercation, but daren’t step out to investigate. Then you think: “One of the neighbours nearby will have heard and probably rung the police by now.” In a work situation, it may be a case of thinking: “One of the others will say something. He’s more experienced than I am. She’s the supervisor, it’s her job to step in.”

Psychological safety

There are lots of potential self-justifications for ‘keeping schtum’, so we need to foster a culture where everyone takes responsibility for their own and colleagues’ safety and feels empowered to speak up. In other words, the workplace should be a place of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is central to a lot of the work we’ve been doing as part of our strategy for Safety at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK. Our ‘Safety in Mind’ charter, and other initiatives are all designed to reinforce that sense of belonging and being valued as a person that empowers our team members. Every individual has their own perspective and experience that should be respected so they can be their authentic self at work, as I pointed out in a previous LinkedIn post on banter and boundaries.

Independent monitoring confirms that we have an actively engaged workforce in keeping with our company culture and values, which celebrate Team Spirit and Respect – open, collaborative working and recognition that every individual deserves to be treated with compassion and care.

In terms of health and safety strategy, for decades now, SUEZ has been cultivating a safety culture that places a premium on reinforcing positive safety behaviours, vigilance, communication, and mutual accountability. Our award-winning Safety in Mind behavioural change programme – created with input from employees across the company – encourages this proactive approach to safety. It is underpinned by our local safety representatives, regular Health, Safety & Wellbeing meetings, reporting and investigation of ‘near misses’ as well as all incidents, ‘huddle talks’, and training courses. A range of other measures – such as ‘Vigiminutes’ recording our Safety in Mind conversations and safety-focussed site visits by senior managers – reinforces this safety culture.

Embedding the message

If you follow me on LinkedIn or read my blogs, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time out on sites. I’ll be making two site visits on April 24 during our Safety Week. While I’m there, I will attend Health, Safety and Wellbeing meetings promoting the Speak Up and Stop campaign. The programme is designed to embed the message that every employee has the power to stop work immediately when they identify any unsafe situation. It’s a simple concept but potentially profound in its implications. Each individual has the right and the duty to intervene, protect themselves and colleagues by preventing incidents that could result in an injury or worse.

The SUEZ Group has commissioned a short video to convey this key message. It shows two SUEZ colleagues in France heading off by car at short notice to a meeting with a client. Preoccupied with checking that his file contains all the essential documents for the meeting, the passenger doesn’t bother fastening his seatbelt for what is just a short trip down the road. His junior colleague who is driving notices this and has a moment to decide – to say nothing, defer to her manager or insist that he belts up. Depending on her decision, the video has two endings. In one, he returns home safe to the son he had gently scolded earlier that morning for not wearing his cycle helmet. In the other, the consequences are the worst they can be.

Every person has the right to return home safe at the end of the working day. It’s our duty as employers to encourage, enable and empower our people to exercise that right and responsibility. And that includes being ready and able to speak up and stop work without fear of retribution, or regret. This is the message we will continue to promote during our Safety Week and beyond. As one of our key H&S mantras puts it: “No job is too important that we can’t take the time to do it safely”.