Wednesday, 18 March 2015

How to apply KM to health and safety

Our experience of KM within the Health and Safety (H&S) field leads us to conclude that there are two main types of knowledge (not one) which need to be addressed. Each of these knowledge types will need a different KM framework and different KM approaches. 


Operational Health and Safety knowledge is knowledge which will be used by all personnel within the organisation. Effectively this is knowledge of

  • how to be safe, 
  • how to be healthy,
  • how to work at heights, 
  • how to isolate electrical apparatus 
  • and so on. 


This is knowledge needed by the business, in order for the business to be Health and Safety compliant. This knowledge is sent out through awareness campaigns, through the Health and Safety Rules, through corporate standards and through newsletters and Health and Safety alerts.

This is highly codified, standardised and documented knowledge, often codified into “Golden Rules” or something similar (like in the sign above). Knowledge is collected from the business through incident reporting, triggered by alerts, incidents and near misses, and in many legislations around the world there are statutory requirements for incident reporting and for acting on the lessons acquired.

Operational Health and Safety knowledge tends to be very similar across industry sectors and isn't perceived as providing competitive advantage. Companies frequently share extensive Health and Safety experiences, provided there is a KM system, or approach designed to cross organisational boundaries.

Professional Health and Safety knowledge is knowledge which will be used by the Health and Safety professionals in the implementation of the Health and Safety standards and practices. Knowledge is shared through networking between the Health and Safety professionals, and captured from the business through lessons learned reviews. Effectively this is knowledge of

  • how to implement Health and Safety standards, 
  • how to influence contractor and staff Health and Safety performance, 
  • how to change the culture to become Health and Safety aware, 
  • how to induct new staff in the Health and Safety environment
  • and so on 

This is knowledge needed by the Health and Safety professionals themselves, in order that they can help the business become Health and Safety compliant. It is proactive rather than reactive. There is no statutory requirement for this form of learning, and learning is generated more through successes and the absence of incidents, than it is from the incidents themselves.

 This is the knowledge that will cause one company to be perceived by Government Agencies, staff, or contracting agencies to be more ‘safe’ than another.


The requirements for success in Health and Safety Knowledge Management. 

 Experience shows that there are several essential factors for Knowledge Management success in the area of Health and Safety. These include

  • Management focus and direction 
  • Clarity of roles and accountabilities 
  • Clear processes for knowledge acquisition, sharing, capture, organisation and retrieval 
  • KM technology available to all 
  • Clear ownership of critical knowledge areas 
  • Tracking the effectiveness of the system, and the re-use of the knowledge. 


Our experience of the application of KM to Health and Safety has been that these key elements are mostly in place for operational Health and Safety knowledge, with items 1 through 4 very typically being addressed. For professional Health and Safety knowledge, there are often far fewer components in place, indeed in some organisations the distinction between operational and professional Health and Safety knowledge is not one that has been identified.

 Operational Health and Safety knowledge management framework

 An effective Operational Health and Safety KM framework will have some or all of the following attributes.

  1. Management are clear on the Health and Safety aspirations of the organisation, and that the organisation must learn, and use its knowledge, to meet these aspirations. 
  2. Health and Safety roles and accountabilities are embedded in the business, and these accountabilities include incident investigation and reporting,Health and Safety risk and hazard identification, safety briefings, toolbox talks and training. 
  3. The processes for incident investigation and reporting, Health and Safety risk and hazard identification, and safety briefings are well known and well documented, and are widely applied. These processes include deriving effective lessons for others, and reviewing lessons from others.  
  4. Technology is in place for storing, organising and distributing incident reports and lessons learned reports, Alert systems are in place for High Potential Incidents. 
  5. Subject matter experts are in place for critical areas of Health and Safety knowledge such as electrical isolation, site security, working at height, waste water treatment, etc (whatever is relevant to the organisation in question). 
  6. Lessons and actions from incident reports are tracked, and the organisation is able to monitor the application of these lessons and the closure of the actions, both at the site where the incident occurred, and at all other sites with similar operations. 
  7. Knowledge of “How to be safe”, “How to be healthy” “How to be secure” and “How to preserve the environment” is codified in guidelines, Golden Rules, and educational material, and deployed to all staff. 


 Professional Health and Safety knowledge management framework

An effective Professional Health and Safety KM system will have some or all of the following attributes.

  1. Management are clear on the areas of focus for the Health and Safety professionals and where organisational learning needs to be applied 
  2. Accountabilities have been defined for capturing lessons and knowledge from designing and running successful (or less successful) Health and Safety campaigns, and for sharing and reapplying these lessons to ensure future success. One or more Health and Safety networks or communities are in place to allow the Health and Safety professionals to exchange knowledge on successful Health and Safety compliance. 
  3. The processes for lessons capture from Health and Safety campaigns, and from the Health and Safety performance of operations and projects, are well known and well documented, and are widely applied These processes include deriving effective lessons for others, and reviewing lessons from others. 
  4. Technology is in place for storing, managing and distributing lessons and codified knowledge which will support and enable the work of the Health and Safety professionals. This will include a central repository for standards, guidelines, best practices and lessons on Health and Safety, and a Q&A forum for Health and Safety professionals. 
  5. One or more subject matter experts are in place for critical areas of professional Health and Safety knowledge such as Health and Safety culture change, environmental excellence, etc. 
  6. Lessons and actions from Health and Safety campaigns and from the Health and Safety performance of operations and projects are tracked, and the organisation is able to monitor the application of these lessons and the closure of the actions. The metrics are frequently leading indicators. 
  7. Through the application of the above, a body of knowledge is in place, owned and maintained, which is accessible, validated and easy-to use, and which represents the company best practice on implementing and sustaining Health and Safety culture and performance. 


The main difference. 

 One main difference between the Operational and the Professional Health and Safety KM systems is that the former is triggered by incidents and near misses. Once these occur, there is often a streamlined process for investigating and reporting the learnings, and for taking action so that (in theory) such an incident should not reoccur.

However the system is reactive; things have to go wrong before learning occurs. The system also focuses on the negatives, and most of the Health and Safety stories which are told in the organisation are about failure, death and injury, and the avoidance of failure.

 A Professional Health and Safety KM system is more proactive. It focuses on learning from success as well as failure. By introducing regular and scheduled learning review, lessons from incident-free operations and successful Health and Safety culture change programs is routinely captured and re-used, giving the organisation the opportunity to learn from success, and the replication of success.

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