What is HSE? The “S” in Health, Safety and Environment

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This article is an extension of my What is HSE? series. It follows on from the “H” in HSE article, and is the second in an emerging trilogy outlining what I see as the core mission—and business benefits—of each of the titular acronym’s three pillars.


Firstly, what is Safety?

Occupational Safety is the management of workplace dangers, eliminating or reducing them to an acceptable level so as to prevent injuries or fatalities and property damage or loss.

Provision of a safe workplace is not only a legal and moral requirement, getting it right can yield significant company cost avoidance.


How is Safety different to Health?

Both seek to prevent harm to people. However, for ease of understanding and as outlined in my article on Health, I (slightly inaccurately) differentiate Health as focusing solely on workers’ long-term mental and bodily integrity (for example stress absence, sound-induced hearing loss, breathing illnesses).

Occupational Safety, in my view, seeks to prevent more immediate sources of harm to people and—more so than Health—damage or destruction of property.

A safety hazard example might be handling chemicals that burn or corrode skin on contact. Another is work-at-height where not only can workers fall, but so can their equipment onto people below. A third example involves maintenance of heavy machinery that must be de-energised and “locked-out”, leaving no residual electrical or other energy, and which cannot re-start with the technician inside.

Enough examples, let’s look at the central mission.


Safety’s Central Mission

In my opinion, the core purpose of occupational safety management is to:

Safeguard people, the business and its property by preventing injury, death, damage or loss.

Hopefully that doesn’t come across as too cold, because the protection of people—workers, contractors and site visitors—is central even if provision of a safe workplace isn’t explicit. Everything else, including business benefits, follows based on how effective that safety management is.

Let me break that mission down…

Safeguarding People

Keeping people safe from occupational harm so that we all get back to our family each day should be the priority of every business, and not just because it’s the right (or legal) thing to do.

Given a safer alternative at equal pay, would any of us choose to work at Death Co. or Amputation Inc.? Surely morale, efficiency and output would plummet, and talent would move elsewhere in search of a more sustainable (read “longer-lived”) source of income? One solution on the company’s part—salary incentivisation—only moves the cost-to-company from one ledger entry to another.

Safe workplace regulations exist in most places where any of us would probably want to work, so safeguarding people is non-negotiable. And yet we fail. The worst-case outcomes for companies include fines or revoked operating licenses—both to be avoided, but also infrequent and reactive.

Effectively safeguarding people costs money, but there are avoided costs too. Examples include medical leave or insurance, replacement and/or retraining, compensation, lawyers, and the diverted work time consumed by all involved in repeated investigations (minor or otherwise). An even more direct business benefit is the avoidance or minimisation of unscheduled production interruptions.

Where barriers to success exist, these must be challenged. Preserved life or a still-attached limb isn’t just about a return on investment. Mistaking compliance, a minimum requirement, with “best practice” is a recipe for failure; if we aim for baseline, we risk sometimes falling short. Desk-based safety focuses on “paper shields” that do nothing to embed safety culture—or stop a spinning blade, for example. Businesses that count the safety cents are likely racking up inevitable HSE contingent liability dollars.

In embedding safety, companies help themselves minimise downtime and so focus on their raison d’être, and ultimately that creates jobs—hopefully safe ones.

Safeguarding Property

As my astute editor kindly pointed out, this section’s out of order (in the ordinal sense). I trust you’ll forgive my use of editorial license in this regard as there is method to the madness.

The mission to safeguard people commits the company to caring for its assets, machinery, equipment and tools etc. Doing this supports safeguarding people since damaged plant or protective equipment is more likely to fail or malfunction, sometimes catastrophically.

Avoiding property damage clearly reduces cost-to-company. For example, avoided repairs or unscheduled stoppages can interrupt production and exposure technicians to more high-risk situations. It also supports incident prevention (they’re not Near Misses just because a person wasn’t involved that time). Recording all incidents informs us about improvement focus areas. In the case of safety change, mandatory reporting of property-only incidents closes the behavioural safety gap.

Recording such incidents leads to greater operator care. In turn, this avoids cost-to-company, aids in good house-keeping, eases spotting of serious damage, informs us about uncontrolled risks or potential incidents with people, and reduces unsafe conditions (due to unsafe acts).

For example: racks with or without forklift guards but with scrapes or dents. Scrapes suggest one hazard, whilst dents imply crushing speeds. As for rack impacts, larger concerns arise including collapse, toppling, and/or damage to or spills of stored goods (potential harm to personnel); in the case of finished or semi-finished goods’ racks, that’s lost revenue.

This supports safeguarding people—and the business.

Safeguarding the Business

Haven’t we already covered this in the preceding sections? Well, yes and no.

Having corporate experience as well as operations and consulting, I’m also attuned to more strategic business HSE risks. These include impacts to reputation or brand such as adverse press and/or social media coverage. Whilst intangible, brand value can take years to build and just minutes to destroy.

Similarly, catastrophic but nonetheless preventable incidents can impact a publicly traded firm’s share price, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. If investor confidence is sufficiently shaken, or an activist investor emerges, board and even leadership changes can follow. Long-term relationship damage with regulatory or oversight authorities can also lead to unnecessary and costly challenges.

This mission, relevant even at site level, is about identifying such “macro risks” and then informing and supporting the business so it can safeguard itself, preferably through prevention but also appropriate emergency response measures.


In Summary

Safety deals with the workplace, its people (employees, contractors and visitors), and the equipment and tools they use and rely on.

Preventing injury or death doesn’t just result in happier employees, it enables the business to focus on making or doing whatever it does best by reducing business interruptions. Similarly, preventing property damage or loss avoids unscheduled downtime, repair costs, and reduces risk exposure.

Safeguarding employees isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s mandatory and it makes good business sense. At the strategic level, it also supports the company against macro risks, ensuring an effective response when prevention fails—well, that’s the goal.



Photo credits: olly; Studio Romantic; Petinovs; textu via fotolia.com.

© Nick Hart (2017) All rights reserved.

Nicholas Hart Nicholas Hart

Engaging within companies to avoid unplanned and avoidable costs. Helping businesses get their employees safely home to their families each day, and seeking to prevent wider impacts such as pollution and climate change. Working to support business continuity, including within the supply chain, so the company can focus on what it does best.

A senior Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) risk specialist with more than a decade of corporate, operations, and consulting experience from agriculture to manufacturing, and from Andorra to Zambia.

Nick writes HSE articles based on his experiences, skills, and professional passion aimed at protecting people and responsible organisations.


  1. Gabriela

    Very important to understand that Safety is not only a physical one for employees -although obviously essential- but also a strategic one for any business wishing to safeguard its reputation, brand, etc. Excellent article!

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