Podcast: Pernille Thau | Safety Insights from Denmark, Vision Zero, Encouragement

Pernille Thau, Head of Department at leading Nordic safety consultancy Human House, shares insights into Denmark's stellar safety record and the globally recognized Vision Zero approach.
November 30, 2023
James Kell
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James Kell: Welcome to the Scratchie Podcast. Today we're talking to Pernille Thau. Pernille is the head of the department at Human House International, which is the leading safety consultancy in Denmark. And Denmark is routinely in the top two or three safest countries in the world. So we're really talking to someone who shapes safety in the world. And at the moment this week Pernille is in Sydney for the 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work. And I was lucky enough to carve out some time in her week to have a discussion. So listen in to a fascinating half an hour with a wonderful woman, here's Pernille Thau.

James: All right. So. It's really great to have you on this podcast, but this was a bit of a last minute thing, Pernille wasn't it? So. I'd love to hear your story that got you to the leadership position that you are in, in safety now. So tell me about everything that led you to where you are now Okay.

Pernille Thau: Well, actually, I started my career in a whole other area and not in safety or health or wellbeing because I used to work as a marketing manager. And so I was a specialist in communications and marketing for quite some years. But then I got the idea that I wanted to help people instead of selling products. And I had these thoughts about how can you combine the knowledge and the experience that I had with marketing and communications and then helping people? And then it occurred to me that health and safety would be this, you know, just a logical way to go. And I can see today that, because I've worked in businesses, doing communication, this helps me a lot, especially when I work with the management teams, top management, because I, I know the language. Off the top management and the management and I can relate or combine this language with the language of health and safety and can in that way maybe elevate health and safety to a more strategic level. When I talk with the with managers.

James: And how long ago was that transition from marketing to safety?

Pernille: 15 years ago, yeah.

James: And have you seen it change a lot in that in that period or the safety landscape? Or are the same problems kind of repeating?

Pernille I think there are some basic universal problems that are still there. But what I do see is that I think the managers are getting more involved, more engaged in health and safety than they'd been before, not maybe because they have changed their mindset about it, but because the market demands it somehow. Right. At least in in in our country, in Denmark, I guess it's the same in Australia. We have the challenge of attracting and retaining good employees and managers. And what we see in Denmark is now that companies are evaluated on social media, on the job sites like job index and Glassdoor and so on, and here employees can evaluate companies on work life balance management, health and safety issues and things like this. Yeah, so in order to attract and retain the best employees and managers, we see that health and safety is becoming a competitive advantage for some companies. So at least they're now focusing more on this. And then of course, I mean, after the pandemic, uh, there is more focus on this area because then the topic has, has gone to the boardrooms also. See the trends of investment with the sustainability agenda. We see investors wanting more proactive leading indicators, not only the lagging indicators and on the, on accidents and so on, but there is this movement towards being able to show that you, you have good prevention processes in companies and that investors are interested in this as well.

James: Got it. And so what about human house? Tell me about that. And and, you know, how big is it? When did it start? What what is it doing? I think it's pretty much the leader in Denmark at the moment is that right?

Pernille: Yes, we are the largest management and health and safety consultancy company in Denmark. We are around 100 employees with five offices in Denmark. And we we work both in Denmark and internationally.

James: Yeah, I was looking through your website today like scanning through it is so Scandinavian. Those names are hilarious. It's like awesome.

Pernille: [laughs] yeah, yes, we do have a lot of Danish people employed in Human House and we started ...well, it's a long story, but the short version is that we started eight years ago in this company. We have some colleagues that have been working together for many years and we are an authorized health and safety consultancy company, meaning that if, if you in Denmark get in trouble with the authorities and on some points then we are authorized to help the companies to solve this. But it's not the biggest part of our business is to work with, safety, health and well-being. So it's the psychosocial working environment and also the physical working environment. Yes. And then we are, um, we were one of the first consultancy companies in the world, I think to really take in the Vision Zero mindset when it started in 2017.

James: So let's talk about that. So what is Vision Zero and what are its key principles and things like that? For someone who doesn't know, who gets the concept but doesn't know anything.

Pernille: Yeah. Okay. Vision Zero was launched in 2017 at the World Congress in Singapore. And it's research based. The researchers behind Vision Zero have investigated what works if you want to reduce accidents. So it's based on the practice - experience from some companies on what works. And this has led to the mindset of Vision Zero, which is essentially that we believe that all accidents and work related illness is preventable. And the way or the reason why we can believe this is that if we are really good at having a prevention culture, having a culture of knowledge sharing, of learning from incidents, from near-misses accidents and so on, we can always be better and better at predicting what could go wrong. So the key principle is knowledge sharing and learning. And if you want to work on a higher prevention level, then Vision Zero offers Seven Golden Rules. That is a kind of a roadmap or a checklist or structure for your strategy on health and safety. And shortly the seven golden rules: the first one is called management commitment. The second one is that we need to have an overview of the risks that we have in our business, and we should be very good at controlling these risks. Then we need to define proactive targets or proactive leading indicators and develop good programs. We need to have a very good health and safety system with the system being the organization of health and safety, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and so on. We need always to think prevention before we, start to design a process or a work process in general. Then we need to have good competencies, not just, with the OSH professionals, but also good health and safety competencies in management and employees. And finally, we need to involve employees. The participation of employees in health and safety is really important.

James: So the last one is what is really interesting to me, because tell me... Well, there's a few things and it really strikes me that safety is very much a product of what the workers think and feel and do. And yet most of these safety protocols and systems and tools at the moment don't really look at that. And if I look at the program for the World Congress here in Sydney, there's a really overriding emphasis on the management. And I'd love to hear your take on how safety interacts with the worker, because that's I mean, that's my bias. I mean, I come from having, in my school holidays, working as a builder's laborer and then doing my apprenticeship and then, you know, starting in the construction industry on on the work face. And understanding that safety is very, very much about how that worker thinks and feels. And that's why Scratchie- And I'm not sure if you know much about Scratchie, but that's exactly what Scratchie is all about. So naturally, I'd love to hear your your take on that seventh point, whether it should be expanded out or whether it's sufficient or, you know.

Pernille: I think I have two answers to, to that question. The first one is. There is in companies, I think there is a lot of focus on the employee behavior, but more in the sense that to be a bit provocative, it's always easier to tell people, you know, 'it's your fault'. You just need to do the right thing, right? If you have an accident or an incident, it's always about the behavior of the worker. Whereas I think management should look more into maybe following the seven golden rules of Vision Zero to to have a more strategic approach to it. But that being said, I think there's too little focus on what we could call a commitment culture. In research, we talk about the there is a control, um, strategy or culture, versus a commitment culture. And the control structure of culture is about that. You know, everything is about laws, regulations, procedures and so on to be compliant. And this is a focus and this is what we tell the workers. Whereas the commitment strategy is more that safety is a value. And therefore, you have the right behaviors because it's you feel it in your heart that this is the right thing to do. And I think there's too little focus on this because the control strategy works when you have stable work situations, because then you have you can follow your procedures and all this. But in, for example, construction. Yeah, I mean, there is never a stable situation, right. Is always dynamic. Exactly. And when you have dynamic situations, you need to rely on people doing the right things because you cannot follow a procedure. And so so this is where the commitment comes in and. This is if if we need or if we want people to feel the importance of safety in their hearts as a value. We need the positive reinforcement and we need the positive.

James: It's so true. It's so true is because what you're talking about - like the paradigm of negativity and safety - is crazy! It's just like, you know, it's like looking at half: it's important, but it's only half of the piece. But people think it's all of it. They think safety equals looking for problems and busting people and all negative. And we're like, What about the positive piece? Because when you're going positive, then you can go abundance mindset. There's no limit to what you do. Whereas paradigmatically with a negative mindset, the limit is zero. That's fine. It's like it has its place, right? But that's why we're all about abundance mindset. It's about positivity.

Pernille: Yes, I truly agree with you. That's true. It gives so much more energy also into, you know, totally work day and the relationship with your colleagues and and all this. I agree. And it's fact.

James: In fact, it's funny you should say that about the energy because what what's been discovered recently, like our our safety stats are pretty good in Australia, but they haven't really moved in the last seven or eight years. And that's not for lack of government commitment. They say, okay, let's give more regulation. Still not working. Let's give more punishment. Oh, it's still not working. Let's, you know, and so they think more negativity because that's the only tool they think exists and it's not working. And, you know, and then you take a mindset approach and you go, Oh my God. Well, if you keep flogging this thing, of course, it's not going to have an impact, you know? So yeah, interesting. And so what do you see in terms of challenges with Vision Zero? We've kind of played with that just just in the last two minutes, I guess. But, where do you see the limitations of zero and what can help mitigate it? You know, it's more talking about our current conversation really.

Pernille: Yeah, I think if we are truly to to reduce the number of accidents or psychosocial incidents also, I think one of the barriers or challenges is that we need, what we, at least in Denmark call psychosocial safety or it's not "Denmark". It's a concept. But we talk about this a lot in Denmark, meaning that we need to have open and honest dialogs in the workplaces from the workers to the management among the workers about what is really going on. And I think it's still a challenge, how to get people to speak honestly. In Human House, we also do Vision Zero surveys for companies. Measuring for each of the seven golden rules. How is the prevention level in the company? And I recently did a survey, and it was too positive. I just saw instantly. Okay.

James: You smelt a rat.

Pernille: Yeah. This is not... this is not the truth. Yes. No company can be that perfect. Yes. So this is a good example of what what is happening, why the employees are... why are they not seeing the truth? What is happening? And this I see still and even now in Europe, we have to now report on more sustainability indexes or indicators. And then you need good, really good reporting. Yes. So what happens then. How if I mean exactly. Then you know, then you have to show good results. Yes. And so on. And is this good for for an honest dialog? I'm not sure at this. It's it's a challenge that we need to figure out how to.

James: So true. It's the late Charlie Munger - I think he he died today 99 years old. To quote him, he said, 'Show me an incentive and I'll show you a behavior'. Yeah. So if we're incentivizing for, you know, low scores in reports and things like that, then we'll see it somehow, you know? Yeah.

Pernille: Yeah, exactly.

James: And so that's really the crux of what we've done and I'd love to show you a site that we're on at one point, because when you go to- let's say you go to a tiler, and the tiler's you know, kept his or her area tidy, for example. And tidiness is linked to safety big time. So you go over and you say, 'Gina, I haven't had to ask you to keep your area tidy. You've done it. That's so well done. Great. Here, scan this QR code,' and Gina scans the QR code and there's a five, four, three, two, one. And then she wins ten, 20 or $50 on the spot. And Gina goes, 'You know what? The managers have always spoken about safety, but this is the first time that I've been recognized for it and rewarded for it.' Right. And so  then her gate, metaphorically, her gate is open. She's ready to have a proper discussion. Yes. You know, the shutters have lifted.

Pernille: So true,

James: -you know, and and so we're seeing this time and again and it's having such a good impact. And it's like watering a dry plant because workers have always been ignored. You know, really. Except for when they're being busted.

Pernille: True

James: Okay. So actually talking more about that,  in terms of the positive motivation and positive incentives and things like that, what have you seen that works well? Where do you see the issues with positive, you know, such as over rewarding when they obsess about the reward or something like that. Have you have you noticed that is there any kind of anything in play in Denmark or in Human House in that? Or is that more something that you'd you'd like to at some point get to?

Pernille: To be honest, I don't think we do it enough. Yeah, really.

James: I love the Scandinavian. Honesty it's the best.

Pernille: No, because I think we are still problem oriented and and solving problems and solving risks and that we need a new language within health and safety, I think because it's all about solving the bad things, right? Or changing the bad behavior or things like this. But I think at least what we work a lot with the Vision Zero mindset and the Vision Zero mindset is also a positive mindset. Because we want to, you know, it's about taking care of people. It's about... no one should get hurt.

James: True. True.

Pernille: So in that sense, it's a positive mindset, and it's the involvement, as I said before, the involvement of workers in the dialog and then the decisions also. Um, but I agree with you that you need to find the right positive reinforcement. So it's not overkill because then it becomes, uh,

James: -gimmicky.

Pernille: Yeah, exactly. Not serious. But it should also be not just in words, but in action. And this is what I like about. What you talked about before with the example that she will actually get a reward. Yes. A tangible or a real reward. Yeah, because I've seen also workplaces where they have these campaigns. But, you know, it's not really. And you don't get any real benefits out of it. And it's just words

James: -so true. It's easy to get cynical. I can understand why workers would get cynical about a system where they see all these posters and they hear all this talk and.

Pernile: Yeah, yeah, yeah. and sometimes the work environment even gets worse. When I talk to workers, they say, 'if you don't follow up on what you say, then please don't say anything'. I mean to see where it's better to. Yeah. So. So stand behind what you're doing. And from my time in marketing, the mindset that I have from there is that people choose always to, you know, you have you optimize all the time. But what is good for you? Yes. And just because we tell people that now you should have the safety behavior if they cannot see how it benefits them - in the short term, even. Because we make choices all the time. Then why should you do it? Yes. And so if we focus on the positive, it should really be that each worker in this moment can see the benefit of doing the right thing. Right?

James: Sure. Yeah. And in your travels through safety, are there any instances or any stories or companies that really surprised you. You were mreally impressed with their high baseline safety culture. Is there anyone you can talk to in that sense or is it quite consistent that you find that 'people are people' and like you say, the drivers are the same? I'd love to hear any stories there.

Pernille: I think what impresses me the most actually is when I work with the companies that really want to change. Of course, we have companies that are high on prevention, but they are not that many. Uh, I'm sureof course if you compare with the rest of the world, of course we have a high standard. But what I'm really impressed about is when we, for example I've been working with the Danish International Meat Processing Company. And the workers are butchers. And for a butcher, an accident is not just because you cut yourself, you know, this is not an accident, right? Yeah, right.

James: Oh, got it.

Pernille: He's cool. They are cool guys [laughs]. Yeah. And the factory managers, they are butchers themselves, some of them. So they want to protect people. But they're, you know, you have to have some good arguments to convince them to to change things sometimes. Right. But then we did a program with these top managers and the factory managers. And through this program we did with them, they realized that they themselves needed to change their attitudes and behaviors to be role models for the rest of the factory. Right. Because health and safety was something they had previously just delegated to the OSH professional. Yes. Do this program, do that program and so on. Yeah. But they realized that, 'No, I have to do something differently myself'. I mean, if you don't change anything, nothing will change. Right. Yeah. So. So they started them actually with the vision. With a mindset to reflect on 'what what is my role on the seven golden rules?' 'What should I do differently in the way that if I ask the employees in one month, they will be able to see the difference?' Right. Right. And then there was this factory manager who realized that he would love to to be on the production floor once a week to talk to the employees. But he never had time because he always had to do paperwork and sit in the office and be in meetings and so on. So his personal action plan was to hire or to to get help just a few hours a week to help him with some of the administrative work. Yes, then he could free two hours of time each Friday to go to the shop floor. So this is what impresses me when you when you think about changing your mindset and then making your words into action as well, right? Yes.

James: Yeah. That's actually a really good segue to talk about the future of safety. And I might quote Tamara Jonson, who I did a podcast with a few weeks ago. She's amazing -runs safety for one of Australia's largest construction companies. And to paraphrase her, - I might get it wrong - she said that the the future of safety may be not having the words 'safety' at all and instead having leadership, communication, all that sort of thing. And so if you follow this example of the manager who has someone do paperwork for two hours to allow him to get out on the shop floor. Well, I mean, of course, that's going to have a positive safety effect to see the boss come around and have a look. Sure. But it's going to have so many other positive effects as well on production, on morale, on all these other things.

Pernille: Right

James: So it's kind of like thinking of safety as fitness in a funny sort of way.

Pernille: Yes. Yeah. Very good.

James: Okay. So well what are a couple of principles. You've got your seven the Vision Zero sort of seven principles, and you've mentioned just now the importance of leadership. And it is said so often it almost becomes cliche, but it's so critical, isn't it, that you could have a really well-meaning worker, but if the leadership is just not into it and then there's no permission, is not there is it? OK so leadership is one of them. Are there any others can you think of? Another real nugget in that sense that you look for or you look to, when you're getting into a new company that needs to change, you know, that leadership is crucial... is there anything else or is that it?

Pernille: Um, I think we already talked a little bit about it before, but we reinforce the good behaviors through what you measure in the company. Right. Getting the measures. Yeah. Because what you measure, gets done, right? This is how it is. So we really need to look at that. Not only accident statistics or even near miss statistics. We know from research. We have a Danish researcher, Dr. Pete Kines who was part of the original Vision Zero Research Group. And we in Human House, we work a lot together with, uh, Pete Kines to really implement some of the research into our practices. And what we found out was that there are two things when you look in research that works if you want to reduce accidents. The one is, as we talked about before, safety walks. Not by us professionals, but by top managers. Managers, safety walks. Yeah. And the other thing is that safety is part of the meetings. Yes. Not just like, 'oh, anyone has a thing on safety today? No? Okay, we'll move on.' But yes, you know, have it in the real sense where we have the topics to discuss. And so what, what we look at when we start with the company is to see, for example, do you measure on the frequency of meetings with safety on the agenda or health or well-being or the frequency of managers doing safety walks with the different topics and things like this. Now, of course, this is again about the managers, but also to to to have leading indicators and structures on the workers. Yes. Behavior and and so on, because this is as important as leadership.

James: I totally agree. And this is going to I'm now going to plug Scratchie because lead indicators is what we produce. So it's the behaviors that you need to reward, directly. Not the reporting of them. In other words, rather than rewarding what people say is happening, reward what is actually happening. It's a subtle but crucial difference. The behaviors that get rewarded are what feeds that lead indicating data. So it's like, let's say the building's going up and of course falls from heights become a problem. Well, then let's have the supervisors look for things that the employees are doing positively in terms of fall prevention and getting rewarded for. And then the workers come back to the site shed at lunchtime and they go, 'I just won 20 bucks in that'. Or rather they'll say, 'Pernille, you just won 20 bucks. You're buying,' you know, you have the banter... It's happens. You know, it happens. And then typically it's mostly men, not that it really matters, but they go home to their wives and they're proud they've won something. They have something to sort of talk about positively at home. Yes. You know, there's so many flow on effects. So I totally agree with you about the measures in a positive sense. It's like measuring LTI doesn't really help.

Pernille: No, no, no. I think it's fantastic that you have seen this and you have developed this app I really do.

James: Thanks. Cool. So how's Sydney been and, and I'd love to hear your take on that is is this your first time here?

Pernille: No, I was here, but that's many years ago. 25 years ago, right. With a backpack. Uh, yeah, yeah. So. But it's so good to be back. It's a beautiful city, and you guys are wonderful. You have a good sense of humor. Yeah, you have good beer.

James: We do have good beer. What do you reckon Lars?

Pernille: And you have good meat Yeah. Nice. Yeah, it's fantastic.

James: Excellent. And and because, I mean, you know, with Mary and everything, we kind of consider ourselves sort of like, you know, we're quite close.

Pernille: Yes, exactly. Yes. With Mary. Yeah, we are. We are almost family.

James: Exactly. And so do you have any parting thoughts at the end? Anything you'd like to share with the audience of interested safety nerds?

Pernille: Um, I think we need to remember that positivity. That to have the right values, it gives so much energy. And this is what should drive not only us working within this field, but also the workers and the managers to really find out what is your motivation from within? You know, because what we do is we take care of people. Yeah. I mean, that's the finest purpose of all right.

James: Yeah. Nice Pernille! Well, thank you so much for coming. I've only put this to you when I found out that you were speaking at the World Congress for Safety just this week in Sydney. And I've really appreciated this last what is it, 40 odd minutes and hopefully we can stay in touch.

Pernille: Yes. Thank you so much for inviting me.

James: Pleasure. Thank you.

James Kell: I hope you enjoyed that half an hour. I certainly did. Thank you so much, Pernille, for coming to talk. Gary and I are going to be at the Big Five construction show in Dubai next week. So there won't be any releases next week, but we'll be coming back. We'll hopefully have a few conversations with people in Dubai. The show is massive. These are projects that, you know, a moderate sized project has like 40,000 people working on it, amazing. Anyway, so I hope you have a great weekend. And we look forward to releasing more podcasts down the track.

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