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Global HSE Speaker Series Vol. 2 - Safety as a Culture

Updated: Mar 18

Robert Hofmans is the Head of Global Health and Safety at Trivium Packaging, based in the Netherlands. Prior to this role, Robert held a variety of HSE leadership roles with Mondi Group over his 13 years with them.

Trivium Packaging B.V. was incorporated in the Netherlands in 2019 and is committed to creating innovative and sustainable metal packaging solutions for a wide range of industry and market. The company operates close to 60 production facilities around the world, including dedicated R&D sites.


Having started his career on the shop floor, Robert has a unique perspective on HSE policies and their impacts and implementations across all levels of the organisation. In this interview with Quber Tech, Robert spoke about the disconnect that often occurs between management and shop floor when it comes to Health and Safety. He made an interesting point about how HSE should not be viewed as a priority in a business. He spoke of the strife towards zero accidents and making safety a value that is embedded in every company’s culture.

Robert put a lot of emphasis on how safety, quality and production are all interconnected in one ecosystem. He also shared view views on digitisation in the HSE field and how data and statistics can be used to create a predictive model that will help companies move towards a more proactive approach to HSE management.

With so many plants in so many different geographies, what do you view as one of your biggest challenges in this role?

Culture is one of the biggest things. I live in the Netherlands, very close to Belgium and Germany. And if you cross the border, you come into a different culture. And these are countries that are next to each other, let alone a country that is somewhere in Asia or Africa, the cultures are bound to be different. Therefore, one size fits all approach is very challenging. The prerequisites and minimum requirements are the same everywhere but how they are managed and implemented can be very different depending on the local culture. Regulations are also different by countries. There are some countries that are over regulated and some where there's almost hardly any regulations. That's why these minimum standards are so important.

Touching on culture, can we speak about HSE as a culture? You wrote a post on LinkedIn about how HSE should not be viewed as a priority but instead a culture that underlines everything in the business. Can you elaborate on that?

It is ingrained in the mind of a lot of managers that safety needs to be a top priority but the problem with that is often the people on the shop floor are not buying it. They all have examples where priorities shift and production trumps everything else. Of course, production must be taken care of because that is how the business makes money. That's the reason why safety cannot compete with production. And it should not. It is a parallel process, it's a value embedded in our culture. And if we look at it like that, there is no discussion on what is our top priority today or tomorrow. No, it's we do something and we do it safely. Which is easier said than done because it requires a change in mindset.

And how are you approaching it right now in your current role?

At Trivium, we made a three-year strategic plan and the third pillar that we are working on is people and culture. And that cannot be done without involving and engaging people, which means you need to have a bottom-up approach to complement the company's directives. You can do that in a semi-official way, for instance, by giving shop floor people specific HSE roles. You can also do this un-officially by just involving people when you make process changes or risk assessments. They want to have a say in that and this is really important. And if you give them a say, you also have a fighting chance that they will tell you what shortcuts have been taken in the past to solve shop floor problems. Shortcuts and safety typically do not go well together. If we are aware of this, then we can work together to find a solution and solve the issue in a safe way.

There's an opinion that some accidents are just not preventable, what's your view on that?

My viewpoint on that subject is that it doesn't matter. We should work towards zero accidents. Whether that's truly achievable or not, does not matter that much. In theory, you can prevent everything of course, but that's only theory and practice is different, but at least you can come very close. So, I always go into this discussion saying it doesn't really matter whether all accidents are preventable or not, it is the strive toward zero accident that will help us in the long run.

Speaking of accident prevention, what advice can you give to help companies move towards a more proactive approach to HSE management?

There are some classical tools of course that you can use to work on the proactive side, like training, safety talks, behavioural audits. There are also leading indicators that can help you look forward and prevent accidents. Then there is the path of digitisation that is now becoming really interesting. On the one hand, I think as a health and safety community, sometimes we forget to step into the 21st century. There is a lot going on right now that can be extremely helpful like virtual reality, augmented reality, big data. And speaking of data, if you're doing all these things, reporting first aid cases, hazards, near misses, behavioural audits, then you can look for trends and with that work on the preventive side. All these data can help you see the bigger picture. Why do people stick their hands into a running machine? It's because there's a quality problem. It's because there's a production problem. It’s because they want to fix something that is wrong with the machine. Fix the quality issue, you fix the safety issue. If you only work on the reactive side, you're not fixing the real problem. They are all connected and digitisation could help you connect all these dots so you can see how everything works together.

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