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Now is the time to invest in health and safety training

Author : Ray Gibbs, co-founder and managing director of Safety Pass Alliance

09 April 2010

Headlines, inspired by Health and Safety Executive figures, have told us that Britain became a healthier and safer to place work in 2008. The statistics show that there has been a significant reduction in the number of people killed, injured or suffering work-related ill health from April 2008 to March 2009.

Ray Gibbs holding a safety passport
Ray Gibbs holding a safety passport

Workplace injuries fell from 233 in 2007-08 to a record low of 180 in 2008-09. And there was a reduction of more than 7,000 in the number of workplace injuries classified as serious or involving more than three days absence from work.

It was also reported that Britain is now one of the safest places in which to work in the European Union. And so the good news continued – with figures showing that fewer working days were lost through injury, and fewer people suffering from work-related ill-health.

While the work of the HSE should be applauded Ray Gibbs believed we should be taking a closer look at the effects of the recession and, more importantly, what promoters of health and safety at all levels in industry must do now to prevent the accident statistics from rising again.

So let’s take a look at accidents in just one sector - the construction industry. In 2006-7 there were 77 fatal injuries to workers – an increase of 28%on the previous year. Of the 77 fatalities, 50 were employees and 27 self-employed.

A total of 23 deaths (30%) were caused by falls from height, and 16 (21%) were due to workers being hit by moving or falling objects. In the last 25 years over 2,800 people have died as a result of construction work

Construction is the largest industrial sector in the UK and has historically been responsible for the largest number of deaths in industry each year. The Government has consistently said these levels are unacceptable, and ordered an inquiry into their underlying causes which resulted in the publication of the Donaghy Report in July 2009.

It is fair to say that work in the construction industry almost came to a stop from autumn 2008 so one would expect the dramatic reduction in activity to lead to lower accident figures.

The same must be said of other industries. Reduced activity has been severe so it is no surprise at all that we have seen encouraging accident figures. But we cannot be complacent and people in health and safety all levels must plan ahead now to mitigate the inevitable rise in industrial accidents we shall see in the future.

Let’s look at the recession in general terms. Many companies have gone to the wall leading to a sharp rise in unemployment. As a result there is a perception that in some companies that have survived there are less people doing the same amount of work.

And that leads to another perception - that there has to be less emphasis on safety. There is no doubt at all that the health and safety training sector has been hit harder than at any time in the last 25 years. Training providers report that vast numbers of companies have stopped virtually all non-core activities - except those that are absolutely essential to their survival.

Unfortunately, in this scenario, Gibbs can see only a rise again in accident levels when the economy recovers in the medium term. History tells us this will happen – unless we take some steps now.

The problem this time around is that the health and safety culture in the UK has changed markedly since the recession of the early 1990s. There is more legislation both from the European authorities and from Parliament that must be taken into account by companies in their day-to-day operations. The implementation of the Corporate Manslaughter Act has forced large companies, as well as small businesses, to understand that individual senior managers must be personally responsible and accountable for the health and safety of employees and sub-contractors.

The level of fines imposed on errant companies for breaches of health and safety regulations has increased in line with society’s enhanced view on employers’ approaches to safety issues.
In November 2009 a Tyne and Wear construction company was fined £75,000 for failing to remove scaffolding that led to the death of a seven-year-old child.

In addition, civil actions are growing, with individuals now far more likely to take legal matters into their own hands if they believe that they have not been properly protected by employers.

It is against this background that that those responsible for health and safety in companies must plan ahead to ensure that short-term actions in the recession do not lead to long-term health and safety problems  - and damaging financial consequences. They should see the predicted gradual emergence from recession as an opportunity to make a difference in health and safety.

The first step is to understand what has happened to your own business and to pose a number of questions. Has the shedding of jobs led to the employment of outside contractors who are not familiar with safety standards in your environment? If so, does this change represent a potential financial threat?

Has the recession led to a stop on health and safety training for employees? And if so, what are likely to be the consequences? Are we storing up accidents for the future? Are we ready for the recovery?

In some industries there are signs that the worst of the recession is over though it’s generally agreed that recovery will be slow.

But Gibbs would argue that now is the time to put in place actions that will ensure that your companies are not exposed to health and safety issues when the recovery comes. You may have fewer employees but it is sensible to ensure they are properly trained in health and safety matters to deal with the future.

It is a false economy to stop training programmes. Gibbs remembers when he launched the first safety passport schemes 10 years ago to help raise safety standards in a wide range of industry sectors.

The Government at that time asked the former Director General of the Health and Safety Executive, John Rimington, to write a report on safety passport schemes. He concluded: “there seems no doubt that the benefits of the passport scheme outweigh the costs,” and suggested that other industries should adopt it.

So the business case for safety passports was confirmed. The report argued that, in effect, there was a financial case for introducing safety passports.

But even now, 10 years on, many health and safety managers are convinced that  awareness of safety passports schemes – let alone their implementation - still needs to be raised dramatically to help make a step change in reducing accident statistics in a number of industries.

So training managers should not just be looking at the cost of health and safety training schemes. They should be arguing the business case for them with their finance directors and their boards. In that way they can play a role in improving health and safety – and play a role in protecting their companies from potential financial threats.

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