Safety is Empowerment – The Importance of Occupational Safety at the Workplace

By Santosh Vellanki


We live in an age in which groundbreaking new technology like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things is drastically reshaping the way we work. Yet, even in this digitally immersive era, human capital has never been more valuable.


India’s very hopes of economic transformation rest on harnessing the full potential of its youth.


The country has been blessed with what is known as a demographic dividend, essentially a large working age population. For all the technology in the world the country would be unable to realize its vision of transforming itself into a developed country without the power of its working people.


Human capital is thus indispensable to growth, whether of a country or company, which is why we must look after it.


Be it on the factory floor or in the boardroom, employees need to feel safe.


It is critical for companies, therefore, to have a robust occupational safety framework in place.


Investing in workplace safety is a win-win for both employees and businesses.


From an employee’s point of view, a sense of safety motivates and liberates them to explore their full potential. This benefits the company as it fosters a happier work environment and makes the workforce more productive.


Better workplace safety also opens commercial opportunities for a business. This is especially true in the case of a market like India which is rapidly globalizing.


This globalization is driving a flood of international businesses looking to invest in the country, forging local partnerships and building an ecosystem of domestic suppliers. They are more likely to team up with businesses that have a strong health and safety record.


At the same time, robust safety practices can also help a business save costs. An unsafe workplace has an impact on productivity, as it erodes employee trust and can also force a plant or factory to shut down. At the same time, it can also have a tangible financial impact on a business in the form of compensation claims, medical expenses and so on.


But how do we ensure a workplace is as safe as it can be?


At UPL, we adopt a ‘Safety first’ approach – Safety is not just a priority, but a value at UPL.


All our business meetings and programs start with a safety briefing conducted by the line management where an incident and learnings are shared to set the undertone of safety. As an organization, we have launched “Lifesaving rules” – these four rules, along with subrules, lay the foundation of core discipline and demonstrate the zero tolerance of UPL with respect to violation of high-risk situations.


At UPL, we have a dedicated safety vertical for Process Safety Management (PSM) in place at all our plants. We have benchmarked all the best practices of process management. With the support of an external partner, we have embarked on a journey of ‘Safety Culture’ transformation. Reporting of minor incidents and near miss incidents has increased multi-fold, and as an organization we are capturing learnings from these incidents to avoid major incidents.

We have adopted a workstream based approach by engaging cross functional teams for cultural transformation. The approach, is as follows:

  1. Behavioural interventions: This is a structured program to enhance behavior-based safety and engage the shop floor workers intrinsically to work safety
  2. Incident reporting and investigations: This program works to investigate any incident at UPL in detail and capture learnings to deploy horizontally to avoid recurrence
  3. Process Safety Management (PSM): This cross functional team leads the implementation of best practices and PSM elements to identify and mitigate the process safety risks
  4. Competence: This program works on enhancement of competence build up at all levels at UPL
  5. Contractor safety management: This work stream has programs for engagement of contractors and managing their safety
  6. Standards: This workstream develops common standards as per best practices

We have implemented a ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy against any deviations to ensure workplace safety. Incidents at factories and shop floors can be risky, however the key to mitigating risks and living the Zero Tolerance approach lies in planning, preparation and ultimately accountability.

Planning involves making sure that safety redundancies are built into every decision — from choosing the factory site to its layout to establishing operational processes that ensure the shop floor is as productive but more importantly as safe as it can be.

At UPL, we conducted 80,000+ man-hours of training for our employees last year. Moreover, each operating shift commences with a 10-minute toolbox talk on safety aimed at enhancing process integrity. Each project goes through HAZOP (Hazard & Operability) studies before commencement. All plant-setting changes are first cleared up by the HAZOP team before being implemented.

One of the most critical safety elements for safety culture transformation is accountability. Only by holding ourselves accountable can we learn from what went wrong and build a safer workplace. UPL has a safety assurance team that ensures compliance at all our units. We also have organized committees dedicated to ensuring employee welfare.

Because shop floors are inherently risky, as I said, they are often the most prominent to register on a company’s safety radar. But ensuring workplace safety for white collar employees is just as crucial. They aren’t dealing with risks to life as their blue-collar colleagues on the shop floor are. What they need is an environment of psychological safety. The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. It means the creation of a workplace environment in which employees are unafraid to express themselves, their ideas.

A workforce that is empowered to operate without fear of failure will perform better and come up with ideas that challenge the status quo and push the boundaries. This ultimately benefits the company by lending it a competitive edge.

There’s no doubt about it. Even in today’s digital age, it’s the people that make a company. They make the difference between success and failure. Investing in its people can pay huge dividends for a company. Making employees feel safe is the key to unlocking it.


(The author is Santosh Vellanki, Group HR Head-India, UPL Ltd., and the views expressed in this article are his own)