George Robotham



The only thing constant in business is change. This paper introduces the reader to general organisational change principles and suggests these principles can enhance safety change if they are applied to this particular type of organisational re-design. Communicating change is dealt with and practical tips given on this vital topic. The issue of management commitment to safety change undergoes examination .




The only thing constant in business is change. General organisational change principles can enhance safety change if they are applied thoroughly.



Change has been around a long time.

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change, what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.

Georg Christoph Licthenstein, 1742-1799

Dr. Merv Wilkinson puts change into perspective when he says:

Organisational change is a generic body of knowledge that is applicable across the board but only when contextualised into the particular workplace within the culture and people characteristics and professions etc. of the situation /workplaces.

There are many general organisational factors that impact on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). If an organisation has poor recruitment practices and consequent low employee skills, safety will inevitably be poor. If there is a low commitment to learning safety will suffer. If communications lose their intent, this will adversely impact upon safety. If responsibilities are not defined and monitored, it will be very difficult to improve safety. In some companies, analysing and improving the general organisational climate is a necessary pre-requisite to introducing safety change. In some cases, introducing safety change can be the vehicle for broader organisational change. In some cases, broader organizational change can be the vehicle for safety change.

Having spent two years recently undertaking tertiary study in the Management of Organisational change this author has developed the belief that Organisational Change principles are particularly applicable to OHS Change. Successful safety change requires technical safety skills and change management skills. The safety professional or manager who is about to embark on major safety change is advised to keep the following discussion on change management in mind and to incorporate the principles into safety change.

Today’s enterprise must be able to react quickly to external change while managing internal change effectively. Change is a constant in the safety profession. If a safety professional cannot adapt to and manage change their life will be very stressful. Technology is opening up new doors, thus adding to the potential for stress. Those who survive and thrive will be those who can adapt to the changes.

Employees often resist changes which diminish skill requirements in jobs, personal status, authority, power or influence, personal or job security, remuneration, workplace communication and opportunities for social interaction. They also resist changes which are forced on them, are not fully understood, affect accepted ways of doing things, violate behavioural norms, disrupt established social relationships, make people feel ineffective or incompetent or expose personal weaknesses.

Wood maintains the following are reasons why organisational change fails.

  1. Management following fashionable ideology not suited to their organisational change requirements.
  2. Unclear or unrealistic organisational change expectations.
  3. Not realising that successful organisational change takes persistent effort over many years.
  4. Inconsistencies between management’s declared organisational change objectives and their change management behaviour and actions.
  5. Assuming training employees or reorganising them is the only organisational change they need to carry out.
  6. Not changing unsupportive organisational change and development systems.

The following is a summation of the major principles of organisational change that the author believes can be applied to OHS work. Safety professionals wanting more information on change management should type “change management” and “organisational change” into Google and search for other interesting and informative information about these important business concepts.



Experienced safety professionals will recognise the relevance to safety change in the three change management practices outlined by Perkins. Managing cultural change requires three things-management commitment, universal approval and appropriate measures and rewards.

Management commitment


In order for anything to happen in an enterprise, including change, executives and managers must be consistently committed to make it happen. Only enterprise leaders can ensure the resources necessary to effect the changes are available. Leaders must continuously and obviously support the changes. The visibility of leadership support is a primary factor in achieving universal approval for change.

Universal approval


Internal change is successful only when the people involved approve of the change. They understand the need for change. They believe the change is good for the enterprise and for them. They agree that the change being undertaken is the right one.

Measures and rewards


Getting everyone to want change is difficult. It requires a level and degree of communication not found in many enterprises. The best way to get and maintain universal approval is to ensure the process and results of change are measured appropriately and accurately and communicated enterprise-wide. Good results and changed behaviour must be rewarded. At the same time, unchanged behaviour and poor results should not be rewarded. Employees will not work toward change if they continue to be rewarded for old practices.

Various writers have dealt with the vital nature of management commitment in safety. It is very easy for management to say it is committed to safety. It is harder to provide a high profile demonstration of that commitment. Safety will only be successful when all are on board and agreeing with safety change. Safety must be measured, preferably using positive performance measures and people must receive intrinsic rather than monetary awards for their successful performance.

The Webtools Newsletter identifies factors identified as fostering successful change regimes.

  1. There is an executive commitment to change – a necessary condition.
  2. The plan is generally perceived to be well-developed and appropriate to the purpose.
  3. The organisation is amenable to change.
  4. Individuals are willing to change. (Some personality types resist change)
  5. The need for change is readily acknowledged.
  6. The organisation has a culture of embracing change. Links with #3.
  7. Employees trust management to act in their best interests.
  8. The organisation enjoys a history of successful change.
  9. Management is capable of implementing change.
  10. There is effective management control.
  11. Arrangements are flexible enough to accommodate structural change.
  12. Clear direction and authority ensures that executive policy translates accurate feedback on progress of implementation.
  13. Standards are enforced.
  14. There is systematic motivation that is determined by:
    1. Equity – perceptions of inequity or double standards diminish morale and motivation.
    2. Appropriate rewards for performance supporting change initiatives.
    3. Expectations of successful outcomes.
    4. Expectations that good employee performance will be recognised.

Whilst the foregoing is written about general organisational change this author suggests all the factors above are applicable to safety change.

Wood outlines several organisational change principles.

  1. Honesty is critical during organisational change.
  2. Without knowledge of organisational change aims, people can not participate.
  3. Organisational change is unsettling for most people.
  4. When people participate in defining organisational change objectives the more they are involved the more they will be comfortable with the results.
  5. People value recognition for their change management endeavours more than material reward.
  6. Traditional cultures do not recognise or respect mature individuality, yet change management expects people to behave like adults.
  7. Organisational change cannot be effective without the full commitment of every person involved in the change.
  8. It is the people’s behaviour during organisational change linked to clearly defined values that promote the change management process.
  9. Team work and interpersonal relationship are fundamental, if the change management process is to be successful.
  10. For unity to be maintained during the change management process, people need a clearly defined shared vision of the change aim.
  11. Organisational change is more effective, when people are empowered and given the time needed to build quality into the change process.
  12. Organisational change needs individual behaviour and attitude change.
  13. To achieve individual behaviour and attitude change, first the organisational change of culture must occur.
  14. The change management process must inspire and motivate people, if it does then organisations enhance productivity.

The Resilience Report looks at change management principles from another perspective.

  1. Address the human side systematically. Requires being in touch with the needs of the workforce.
  2. Start at the top, because change is inherently unsettling for people at all levels. All eyes will turn to the C.E.O. and the leadership team for strength, support and direction. Leaders must embrace the new changes themselves and model desired behaviours.
  3. Involve every layer. At each layer of the organisation the leaders must be aligned to the company vision, equipped to exercise their specific mission and motivated to make change happen.
  4. Make the formal case. The articulation of a formal case for change and the creation of a written vision are invaluable opportunities to create or compel leadership-team alignment.
  5. Create ownership. Ownership is often best crafted by involving people in identifying problems and devising solutions.
  6. Communicate the message. The best change programs reinforce core messages through regular timely advice that is both inspirational and practical.
  7. Assess the cultural landscape. Through cultural diagnostics can assess organisational readiness to change, bring major problems to the surface, identify conflicts and define factors that can recognise and influence values, beliefs and perceptions that must be taken into account for successful change to occur.
  8. Address culture explicitly. Leaders should be explicit about the culture and underlying behaviours that will best support the new way of doing business and find opportunities to model those behaviours.
  9. Prepare for the unexpected. Effectively managing change requires continual reassessment of its impact and the organisation’s willingness and ability to adopt the next wave of transformation.
  10. Speak to the individual. Individuals or teams of individuals need to know how their work will change, what is expected of them, how they will be measured what success or failure will mean for them and those around them. Those promoting change should be recognised, those not promoting change should be removed or sanctioned.

Once again this author suggests the above principles are equally applicable to safety change as general organisational change.

Kotter speaks about the eight steps for successful large-scale change.

  1. Increase urgency. Those who are successful in change begin their work by creating a sense of urgency among relevant people.
  2. Build the guiding team. With urgency turned up the more successful change agents pull together a guiding team with the credibility, skills, connections, reputations and formal authority required to provide change leadership.
  3. Get the vision right. The guiding team creates sensible, clear, uplifting visions and sets of strategies.
  4. Communicate for buy-in. Communication of the vision and strategies comes next-simple heart-felt messages sent through many unclogged channels. Deeds are more important than words. Symbols speak loudly. Repetition is the key
  5. Empower action. Key obstacles that stop people working on the vision are removed.
  6. Create short-term wins. Short-term wins provide credibility, resources and momentum to the overall effort.
  7. Do not let up. Change leaders do not let-up they create wave after wave of change until the vision becomes a reality.
  8. Make change stick. Change leaders make change stick by nurturing a new culture. Appropriate promotions, skilful orientation and events can make a big difference.

Kotter’s text “The heart of change” is a recommended must-read for anyone undertaking cultural change. Safety professionals reading Kotter’s book will quickly realise its relevance to safety change.

Adverse health and safety outcomes have been associated with poorly managed change. To achieve genuine organisational change it is essential to address the people issues.

Cole gives eight stepping stones to introducing lasting change:

  1. Sound preparation. Clarify what the change is intended to achieve. Establish clear, measurable and realistic objectives and outcomes. Identify risks and develop appropriate controls.
  2. Create a common vision. Help people understand the need for change and provide a clear vision of what will be accomplished and how people will be affected.
  3. Clear communication. Communicate the vision clearly and often to everyone. Establish processes so that people hear things through official channels.
  4. Address concerns and enable participation. Develop processes to bring concerns out in the open and discuss them. Participation will help build ownership and commitment.
  5. Develop a clear action plan. Involve people in developing clear plans about who will do what, when and how in order to achieve the vision and make change work.
  6. Celebrate progress. Celebrate as stages are achieved to enable people to let go of the old and accept the new.
  7. Create a climate of certainty. Tell people what you do know, explain what will change and what will not.
  8. Follow-up. Monitor how the change is progressing and review the adequacy of risk controls. Modify in the light of experience.



In introducing change it is important to understand that:

  1. Poor levels of employee adjustment to change can reduce productivity and increase accidents.
  2. Employee adjustment to change is a partnership between the individual and the organisation.
  3. The quality of change leadership and the communication of a clear understanding of the need for change and how change is to be achieved are crucial to the success of the change process.
  4. Supportive leadership behaviours and the quality of an organisation’s people management practice exert considerable influence on employee adjustment to change.
  5. Supportive leaders are approachable, accessible, responsive and understand the problems facing staff and communicate well with employees.
  6. Effective people management practices are characterised by effective delegation, treating people with consideration and respect, encouraging staff to take initiative, actively seeking staff involvement in decisions and showing confidence in their abilities.
  7. Individual responses to change will vary, depending on past experiences, individual capacities and coping styles. Leaders should be prepared to expect a variety of responses to change and be trained to cope with them as they arise.

It is not unusual in companies with high profile safety management systems for senior and middle management personnel to spend over 30% of their time directly on OHS issues. Key personnel conduct safety meetings. They personally participate in safety inspections in their area of responsibility. They have safety as a first high-profile agenda item of every meeting. They conduct and they make it clear that they expect those below them to place a high priority on safety. It is not enough for top management to be committed to safety; it must be a clear and high profile demonstration of commitment – you get the performance, you demonstrate and you expect. This is one area where positive action by management can have an overwhelming influence on the culture of the organisation. BHP-Minerals benchmarking study emphases the importance of management commitment. The C.E.O. must elevate safety to number 1 on his personal priority list and he must constantly deliver the message about the importance of safety and create an expectation to perform in the safety area. Sacking or demoting a supervisor or manager because of non-performance in the safety area will help to focus the attention of other managers and supervisors on the area. You will probably only have to do this once. Do not be afraid to spill a bit of blood for the greater good.



Most safety professionals will have experienced the launch of a new, major safety initiative. Deep and meaningful meetings are held about the launch. The brainwave is presented that we must communicate the initiative to the troops. Stories are written for the company newsletter, the boss addresses the troops and sometimes we video the boss’s speech and play the video to the troops.

Larkin says most of the advice to senior managers about communicating change is wrong. This advice usually boils down to more videos, more training, more senior manager roads shows, more briefing meetings, more newsletters and more employee surveys. Frontline employees distrust information from senior managers, do not believe employee publications, hate watching executives on video and have little or no interest in corporate-wide topics. The boundary of the frontline workers world is his or her local work area. If the communication does not break through this boundary it is wasted. Typically our communication comes from the wrong source (senior managers instead of first-line supervisors), using the wrong method (print or video instead of face to face) and carrying the wrong message (corporate instead of local work area performance) Larkin says “If it’s not face-to-face it is not communication.”

Larkin’s text Communication Change contains simple yet powerful advice about communicating in times of change. It is essential reading for those leading any type of change. After reading this text, the safety professional will recognise many mistakes that are typically made in communicating safety change.



For about a year this author worked with a General Manager Operations who could best be described as a charismatic leader who had an overriding commitment to safety. This individual would turn up at operating sites in the middle of the night to see how safety was being managed. He would jump on a haultruck and go with the operator while the truck was loaded. The manager would question the operators about safety and tell them that he expected safety to be their top priority. This manager let his subordinates know he expected nothing less than 100% commitment to safety. Those who did not comply were not around long. Word quickly got around about the manager’s safety expectations. Single-handedly, he raised the profile of safety in the organisation.

Schein relates how leaders embed and transmit change.

The most powerful mechanisms for culture embedding and reinforcement are:

  1. What leaders pay attention to, measure and control.
  2. Leader reactions to critical incidents and organisational crises.
  3. Deliberate role modelling, teaching and coaching by leaders.
  4. Criteria for allocation of rewards and status.
  5. Criteria for recruitment, selection, promotion, retirement and excommunication.

What leaders pay attention to, measure and control


One of the best mechanisms leaders have for communicating what they believe in or care about is what they pay attention to. (What is noticed and commented upon, to what is measured, controlled, rewarded and in other ways systematically dealt with.) Even casual remarks and questions that are consistently geared to a certain area can be as potent as formal control mechanisms and measurements. Other powerful signals that subordinates interpret for evidence of the leaders assumptions are what they observe does not get reacted to.

Leader reactions to critical incidents and crises


When an organisation faces a crisis the manner in which leaders deal with it creates new norms, values and working procedures and reveals important underlying assumptions.

A good time to observe an organisation is when an act of insubordination occurs. No better opportunity exists for leaders to send signals about their own assumptions about human nature and relationships than when they themselves are challenged.

Criteria for recruitment, selection etc

Leaders, who are trying to ensure that their values and assumptions will be learned, must create a reward, promotion and status system that is consistent with those assumptions. Whereas the message initially gets across in the daily behaviour of the leader, it is judged in the long run by whether the important rewards are allocated consistently with daily behaviour. One of the most subtle ways culture gets embedded is in the initial selection of new members. Basic assumptions are further reinforced through criteria of who does or does not get promoted, who is retired early and who is excommunicated.

Design of physical space, facades, buildings

This category is intended to encompass all the visible features of the organisation that clients, customers, vendors, new employees and visitors would encounter.

Stories about important events and people

As a group develops and accumulates a history, some of this history becomes embodied in stories about events and leadership behaviour. The story reinforces assumptions and teaches assumptions to newcomers. Leaders cannot always control what will be said about them in stories, although they can certainly reinforce stories they feel good about and launch stories that carry the desired messages.

Formal statements about organisational philosophy, values

The formal statement is an attempt by leaders to state explicitly what their values and assumptions are.



The principles of organisational change management must be examined for their applicability to OHS Change. Safety Change will be much more effective if these principles are put into practice.

During author’s organisational change studies he discovered the concept that “People support what they create”. It is suggested this motto is directly applicable to safety change.


BHP Minerals, 1995, Safety Benchmarking Report, San Francisco

Booz, Allen & Hamilton, 2000, Resilience Report

Cole, K, Supervision-The theory and practice of front-line management

Comcare, 2000, Managing change to avoid negative health & safety outcomes, Australian Government Printer, Canberra

Johnson, D., 1972, Reaching out, Prentice Hall, New Jersey

Kotter, J., 2002, The heart of change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston

Larkin,T.J.,1994, Communicating Change, McGraw Hill, New York

Perkins, A., Change Management – A strategic, information-centric approach, Visible Systems Corporation,

Robotham, G.,2002, “What makes a safety management system fly”, American Society of Safety Engineers, International Best-Practice Specialty Newsletter,Vol,1,No.3, Spring 2002

Schein, E., 1992, Organisational culture and leadership,2nd. Edn., Josey Bass, London

Wilkinson, Dr.,M, 2004, Personal communication, Catalyst of Change, Brisbane

Wood, T., 2003, “Managing organisational change”, in

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