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How to Sell Safety to Top Management


“Selling safety to senior management is a serious issue; quite challenging especially in the face of limited budget”Mr Segun Bakare, HSE Manager of Petrolex Oil & Gas Limited

“They (top management) relate to dollars and cents. They don’t relate to incident rates.” – Terry Hart, CSP, American construction safety adviser

Experts globally agree that Safety is usually a hard commodity to sell to top management, especially as it is difficult to convince them to see beyond the immediate. As many companies are already going through financial stress, top management think mostly in the now and are more concerned about keeping the business up, which usually means cutting cost, than setting aside a substantial budget for safety initiatives.

It’s therefore not always easy to convince them about the need for a new safety initiative or significant investment. Even for some CEOs and top management that claim to value safety, it’s at best a venture which could help save some money but certainly does not bring in money. Perhaps this explains why some business owners misunderstand HSE officers “as ‘workplace policemen’ who perform hazard and compliance assessments to ensure safe workplaces at the detriment of production,” says outgoing President of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Nigeria chapter, Mr. Herbert Nwaka.

But there are practical steps that have been identified by industry players to get the job done. A Project SHE Manager at Deltaafrik Engineering Limited, Agharese Onaghise, says the key could be showing them the impact commitment to safety has on driving growth. “But how to overcome these challenges is to show them (top management) the benefit, the value that safety adds to the organization as a whole on projects…it also helps to make your programs work as it helps you sell it effectively to top management.

“Programs are also a way of selling safety to management. I develop programs, but I do not run them. The programs are run by both the employees and management but management leads. In fact if am launching any program, it is the top management that launches it. I am just there in the background and then by the time you run with it everybody flows with it,” she said.

One of the most efficient ways, another safety practitioner say, is to speak top management’s language. Terry Hart, a director of construction safety at a Kansas, United States-based firm says this involves showing clearly how investment in safety helps the company’s bottom line, especially factoring in indirect costs of non-compliance to safety standards, which could be many times higher than direct costs. He said direct costs could be in form of compensation and regulator’s fines.

These indirect costs, he said could be in form of:

(1). Loss of productivity. When a worker is injured, that person is not being productive and may be out of work for some time. The injury may have resulted in damaged equipment, which must be repaired or replaced. A severe accident may shut down part or all of a plant for weeks or months.

(2). Training and retraining. When a worker is injured, the company may have to expend resources to train that worker for light-duty work or retrain an employee who returns after a long absence. Other workers may have to be trained to fill the opening left by an injured or deceased employee.

(3). Selection process for hiring new employees. If a worker must be replaced, time and energy must be used to interview and hire someone. In addition to orientation, this can include drug testing, a physical or a background check.

(4). Morale. Employee morale may drop following an accident. Hart said he has seen instances where workers developed poor safety practices, poor workmanship and a lack of respect for management.

(5). Legal costs. Accidents can lead to lawsuits. Costs can include lawyer fees and time spent compiling information and attending court proceedings.

(6). Filling out forms. Time must be expended after an accident to fill out insurance, accident investigation and medical forms.

Onaghise agreed with Hart’s idea of painting vivid images backed with examples of what could go wrong when safety is not given priority. “You can create a scenario of what the company stands to lose if accident happens.”

She said the HSE officer could then link this to impact on company’s performance records, which potential clients take very seriously.

“For instance on the current program I am working on, one of the things that sells is the initiative we have, the fact that we have worked over 8million man hour without injury and no lost time. Those are the types of things that sell. Like the clients we have, these are the things that are key to them – what program do you have? What have you initiated and implemented? What are you doing about the safety of workers, how do you demonstrate that you care about them?…With that performance record, you keep showing them (top management) the performance, showing them the trend, giving them examples of things that could go wrong…this will sure make them see reasons why they should support you.

A popular aphorism says one needs not only to be doing the right thing but also seen to be doing the right thing. Every employer wants to be seen to be treating their employees right. Onaghise says psyching employers about protecting employees as their greatest assets could also be a way to push through HSE initiatives.

“Every employer wants to tell that their employees are their greatest assets. How does he show that? If you (HSE officer) can demonstrate to them (top management) that their (employees) health and safety is key; you might not be able to increase their salary at that point in time, but if you can put in programs that give them that confidence that you care about their health and safety, this can demonstrate to employees that the company cares for them,” she said.

She said a great secret is to dole out initiatives in small doses. “For instance, if I want to sell to my management to provide incentives, I don’t come up with big stuff or big items, it might just be an in-house designed certificate, but if thev key into it, it also shows safety is core.

On his own part, Petrolex’s HSE Advisor, Bakare says the challenges that face a safety manager’s ability to sell safety initiatives to top management, apart from cost, include: the safety manager’s passion, experience, sacrifice and innovativeness.

“There are multiple challenges in selling safety to top management: cost and budget is one. Also for you as a safety manager to sell safety to the management, it takes passion. You have to have passion for what you do and what you are communicating and selling, because without passion, they won’t buy it. They have to see it in you before they can buy in.

“Also, you must be experienced. One challenge in selling safety to top management by safety professionals is lack of experience. So many safety professionals just carry NEBOSH certificate without the experience. If you do not have experience in safety you can’t sell it effectively.

“As a safety manager, you must also be willingly to first make some sacrifice to make management have a glimpse of what safety really is beyond their own knowledge of it.

“It will sure take some personal resources from you but at the end, it will be worthwhile.  In doing this, you have to organize programs.”

He said the importance of personal innovativeness could also not be overemphasized in selling safety to top management.

“In our company, Petrolex, we have programs and during such programs, we coined a word which we pronounce in the Ijebu dialect.

“We say SAFETY NANI. NANI means, ‘No Accident, No Injury.” When the CEO heard it, he laughed and I tell you, we got his attention by that,” he retorted.