Working safely is everybody’s business

“People often think my job and that of my team consists of putting on a helmet to spend our entire day in the workplace to see if people are working safely. That is a misunderstanding. Working safely is everybody’s job. It must be propagated by management and practiced by people in the workplace. It is the supervisor’s task to ensure regulations are observed. So what do we do then? We create the conditions that enable people to work in a uniform and consistently safe environment.”


Matthijs Knetsch is Global Manager Quality, Safety, Health, and Environment (QSHE). That is a lot of words for a comprehensive job. As someone responsible globally for quality, safety, health, and the environment, Matthijs is rather busy. “Our job consists of a lot of paperwork because authorities and institutions that issue certifications want to have insight into the processes that take place. And even we want to know exactly what happens. For each step in each process, we map the risks.” Only when you know the risks, can you start working on their reduction. We do this with rules, adaptations, lists that provide us with meaningful feedback, and by generating awareness. It is a lot like reducing risk when crossing a road by first looking to the left, then to the right, and then to the left again before taking the first step. We wonder, for instance, whether the knife used for harvesting the bowel package would be better with a rounded end.”

Designing such “safety systems” is not a small assignment within a big organization such as Van Hessen. “Even though the rules are different in each country, governments everywhere see safety as the primary responsibility of the company. Because all our people are valuable to us, we aim to apply precisely those rules globally that are mandatory in the strictest country we work in.”

Even though everybody has the right to a safe working environment, the greatest challenge remains a global and uniform safety culture. “Every country has its own culture and that is reflected in the way safety rules are interpreted. In every culture, workers have to adapt and that simply takes time and energy. “In spite of a tight production schedule, there is always room and time for improvement.”

“Recently, we made alterations to one of our machines to prevent people from getting stuck. A project such as this takes a lot of energy but it results in an even safer work environment.”

In other words, the formation of a safety culture is a long-haul process. “An important element in this process is that safety is not simply demanded from above but is supported by all workers. To facilitate this we have developed three safety pillars that all workers have to memorize:

  1. I work safely; I watch myself and others.
  2. I work according to the rules that apply in this workplace.
  3. I am always alert.


“It may sound self-evident and may seem easy to implement. Yet, by helping everybody to actively apply these pillars, we prevent workplace accidents.” To make this more concrete we initiated the Vince & Hank campaign in the Netherlands. The two characters effectively symbolize the safety pillars, helping our workers to remember them more easily. We will introduce the two mascots internationally and turn this into a global campaign.


In order to anchor safety
in the company culture,
management needs to set
an example. - Dave Angus


Given his more than 25 years of experience with a lot of other companies, David still sees room for improvement. He has been manager QSHE with Van Hessen in the UK for a year now.

“I’m not surprised to still come across things that need to change,” says David, “Regulations are very complex. Even I make use sometimes of a legal expert because the rules around safety and health in the UK are very complex as well as strict.” Because his job is at a management-level, David does not spend all his time in the workplace. That is simply impossible. It is his job to perform risk analysis and reduction to protect the workers. Managing QSHE is a fulltime job.

Just as Matthijs Knetsch with whom he collaborates closely, David emphasizes that managers, supervisors, and workers need to be convinced themselves of the importance of safety and embody it. But to make that possible, the leadership in an organization has an exemplary function. “When managers higher in the organization, set a good example its these small things, that will positively influence everyone.”