10 Strategies for Global Safety Management

June 1, 1999
OSHA's respirator standard introduces new requirements for fire brigade members entering dangerous situations.

Multinational organizations face a variety of geographic, cultural and technical challenges in managing safety and health effectively. Based on my experience in helping businesses deal with these issues, I have identified the top 10 issues you will face in strategically placing safety and health within your global organization and offer advice on dealing with these issues.

1. Align worker safety and health with global business strategy and values. Management sets direction for the company. It sets strategic vision and mission, growth, profitability and production targets, as well as the placement of value on worker safety and health throughout the organization and throughout the globe.

A system for managing safety and health must be aligned with a company"s business culture and processes. If management demonstrates in words and actions, through policies, procedures and financial incentives, that it is committed to worker safety and health, supervisors and workers will respond by ensuring safe work is performed throughout the organization.

What exemplifies a commitment to worker safety and health? It goes beyond the traditional safety and health policy statement and beyond just doing the minimum required by local agencies and authorities. In a committed organization, worker safety and health is discussed in the corporate boardroom and aligned with the business process. Key safety and health performance indicators are identified and measured, and results communicated in a corporate annual report to workers and customers. Line and division management are held accountable and responsible for the performance of the safety and health process. This is explicit in their job descriptions, made part of their annual performance goals and can determine their compensation opportunities.

Performance is not just the organization's accident statistics, but the assessment of worker risk prior to commencing work on a new production process, the management of change and closure of audit findings. Embedded in the fabric of how the company operates, safety and health is not a separate process, but one that is integral with how activities take place at the company.

2. Think globally, act locally. Thinking globally means developing a mindset for new and innovative thinking on ways to penetrate new markets and capitalize on production outside existing domestic borders. It means strategic acquisition, joint ventures, increased shareholder value and, in many cases, the future of the company.

A key to business success globally is efficiently and effectively allocating the company"s financial resources to develop new markets and establishing manufacturing and distribution points to service those markets. This concept translates well to safety and health issues. Forward-thinking multinational companies (U.S. and non-U.S.) use an innovative, integrated management systems approach to worker safety and health. This approach aligns the safety and health of their valued human resources with production, productivity, research and development, process and machinery, product and service quality, environmental impacts and financial targets. The key is that all, not just one or two, are essential to accomplish the goals (including safety and health) of the organization.

What is meant by acting locally? Business is done differently from country to country, region to region. By allowing the local business climate, customs and culture to influence day-to-day functions, corporate goals will be achieved whether production, safety or health goals, client service or raw material delivery in a fashion comfortable and appropriate for local managers and workers. Local business practice is demonstrated in the ways local units manage change, negotiate a position or harness the innovation that comes from bringing a team together to solve a problem.

From the safety and health standpoint, this can be seen where local regulations are more strict (e.g., European Union Machinery Safety Directives) than in the U.S. or where the concept of risk acceptability is more conservative (Sweden) or liberal (some Latin American countries). At the end of the day, profitability, shareholder value, growth and efficiencies are what drive business. Safety and health must be aligned with all these business drivers.

3. Demonstrate how good safety and health management benefits the business. To manage safety and health, financial resources for this activity must be allocated within business units throughout the world. Local leadership must understand the value corporate leaders place on providing a safe place of work for workers and be provided incentives to ensure resources are deployed for all aspects of safety and health.

The key is to have the safety and health professional at the plant or corporate level involved in the planning stage of any new project. This includes new products and the processes to manufacture, package or distribute those new products. The challenge is to institutionalize safety and health into the solution side of the planning process.

When that occurs, safety and health professionals can identiy areas where not only the safety and health of the workers are at stake, but where their expertise will affectthe financial side of the business. Take the case of the safety and health manager who took it upon herself to work with the company"s engineering department to develop a management of change program. Engineering benefited from an organized approach to managing new processes and changes within the plant. The safety and health manager, through her involvement in the development of the program, gained access to data that allowed her to identify risks and propose changes in the planning process.

Safety and health professionals often get the reputation as "work-stoppers," not "problem-solvers" because they are called in to assess worker risk when a new process is completed. This can be costly in terms of work stoppage and production losses that result from retrofitting or changing equipment or processes to comply with minimal safety and health regulations. The result of this woman"s foresight was a happy engineering department and the company recognizing safety and health as a contributor to ensuring a profitable, effective business process. This concept translates throughout the world.

4. Manage regulatory compliance issues. Regulatory compliance is essential to your company. In essence, it maintains the company's license to do business. The best way to manage compliance is to develop good management standards for safety and health (i.e., Best Practices) for implementation globally throughout the organization. This will ensure a consistent level of compliance with recognized safety and health practices. If local country regulations are more strict, they are implemented above the requirements of corporate standards. The compliance model: Local regulations take first priority, then corporate standards. The more strict regulation is the one implemented.

One challenge is getting regulations in English (or your own language). There is more awareness of this today than five years ago. Many governmental safety and health bodies will provide English versions of their standards, some on the Internet. In addition, there is a U.S. consortium, ENSR, that provides members with access to audit protocols which incorporate safety and health regulations for many countries around the world. Another method of managing this process is to use your local resources (internal and external) to augment safety and health activities. The best option for your company will depend upon how large your organization is and to what local resources you have access.

5. Manage skilled workers as a business resource. One of the greatest challenges for multinationals is developing and retaining a skilled work force around the world. This is seen at the senior leadership level and continues down to operators needed to run machinery and equipment within a plant. Multinational companies may use expatriates (i.e., individuals whose home country is not the one in which they are working) to help solve this problem. They bring the skills needed to do the job (managerial or labor-intensive) and are charged with the transfer of their knowledge and skills to local workers. Businesses in developing countries feel the financial burden of expatriates in particular. Expatriate costs go well beyond salary implications. Additional costs include benefits, taxation, schooling of family members, hazard pay (where applicable), housing and relocation expenses.

Once the local work force has been trained in all aspects of the business, from engineering and production to quality and safety, labor costs decrease significantly. This means a high value is placed on the newly trained local staff. Competition for skilled workers is great and many leave for a few cents more per hour. Retaining a skilled work force offers a business-aligned motivator for providing workers with a safe and healthful workplace, as well as a means of preventing the cost of a skilled worker being injured and out of the production process.

6. Develop local safety and health resources. In some cases, safety and health resources are not available locally and must be trained in-house by an expatriate, a regional safety and health professional or a local consultant to ensure an expected level of safety performance. This is a challenge because it is has a high cost impact initially. Training new staff or hiring outside consultants involves direct cost to the company. In some cases, there may not be in-country consultants, and additional costs may be substantial if the company has to bring one in from another country.

7. Manage the literacy and language diversity of the work force. Literacy and language affect the ability to communicate and, therefore, play a major role in decisions about safety and health training and the use of warning signs and labels. Communication is difficult when there are three to four languages spoken at one site. This is especially true in China and Asian-Pacific countries where the labor force may consist of people who speak several languages or dialects. Compounding this challenge are locations where literacy rates are low. For example, the use of material safety data sheets in training and on the job can be impossible as a result of language and literacy challenges. One multinational company dealt with this challenge by using pictorial warning signs.

Safety professionals must be innovative in finding ways to educate illiterate workers or workers who do not speak the language native to where a facility is located about workplace hazards. One method used successfully is to develop "train the trainer" programs for local staff who speak the native language. They can verbally educate workers on workplace hazards and controls and are available for questions in the plant.

8. Be mindful of the culture: business and country. Do your homework and understand the local business and social cultures where your plants are located. Resources such as Business Interacts from Sherison International ($15 each) provide country-specific information on business norms, protocols and etiquette.

Your ability to manage safety and health globally will beaffected by your personal style because, in most countries outside of the U.S., personal relationships are essential to getting business done. Approach is everything. Working with local management to achieve safety and health goals works best when questions are asked and assumptions are not made about existing processes and methods. Avoid telling local management the process must be done the American way; the existing methodology may, in fact, achieve expected safety and health results. In some cases, raw materials or equipment, such as testing or personal protective equipment, may not be available locally or there may not be a skilled work force. This does not mean change cannot occur. Rather, local management will be more amenable to new ideas and change when there is a willingness to learn how business is done locally.

9. Develop a continuous improvement process. Building a continuous improvement loop into every process that affects safety and health, whether it is a safety committee suggestion or an incident investigation, takes time and a willingness and commitment to implement it. Managing continuous improvement in the safety and health aspects of the business is only the first step. The next step is to look upstream in the business process and find ways to positively affect the business through innovation , which also improves safety and health. This is business synergy at its best: bringing various business functions together to provide solutions to business problems.

Business synergy positively influences productivity, quality, environmental solutions, production effectiveness and cost reduction. Take the example of one multinational that designed a new product requiring the use of a toxic, highly volatile raw material in the manufacturing process. At the time, the design engineer did not understand the implications for use of this raw material; however, the safety and health professional, who is part of the planning process for all product manufacturing operations, highlighted the additional costs for ventilation, scrubbers and other environmental equipment, blow-out walls and partitions needed to control the risk of using the particularly volatile raw material. Based on this input, the design engineers soon found an alternative raw material that did not need the expensive safety measures. This is a clear example of how safety and health affects the business process, through the identification of risk, costs and solutions to the business process.

10. Develop a process for managing change. The concept of change management came from design engineers who had to keep track of changes to engineering plans. Without a process or system to manage these changes, there could be serious ramifications for products in terms of quality, usability, costs, legal issues or even building occupancy.

The same applies to health and safety issues. Changes in operations, personnel and policy, such as use of temporary workers or use of raw materials, requires an updated risk assessment and associated control measures in the planning stage. Safety and health professionals should tie into the management of change process in their company. If it does not exist, they should take the opportunity to develop one and demonstrate the added value safety and health bring to the business, as described in Item 3.


Effective implementation of these global safety and health management strategies requires that safety and health professionals map out the best strategy for their corporate business climate and culture. Companies are unique; one size does not fit all. What you consistently find in companies with effective global safety and health management systems is an application of the 10 strategies which I have outlined here.

Kathy A. Seabrook, CSP, RSP (UK), is president of Global Solutions Inc., Mendham, N.J., where she can be reached at [email protected]. She is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers' Board of Directors and of its advisory council for the International Division. She is a member of the British Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering. She is a member of Occupational Hazards' Editorial Advisory Board.

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