Dealing with risks and hazards

on . Posted in Facilities Management

Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), gives his response to Lord Young’s review of health and safety, published in October

Entitled ‘Common Sense, Common Safety’, Lord Young’s review of health and safety and the compensation culture was published on October 15.   

It has made about 30 recommendations for dealing with compensation related to negligence and for simplifying health and safety administration, particularly helping smaller businesses to do simple risk assessments. 

Despite continuing use of the term compensation culture, Lord Young’s report has now confirmed that this is largely a myth – a perception in the public mind created by the media and amplified by aggressive advertising by personal injury lawyers. Instead, the report focuses, quite correctly, on the need to provide reassurance to everyone that, if they act sensibly and reasonably, they cannot be sued successfully for negligence.

Accident prevention on the agenda
Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s chief executive, and I met with Lord Young for a one-to-one briefing at No.10 the day before the report’s launch.

We were able to explain in more detail some of the views we had already expressed to him in writing, and explain some of the work we have been doing at RoSPA, not just to help improve overall health and safety performance but to cut unnecessary bureaucracy (caused mainly by third parties – not regulators).    

We also stressed that accidents in the UK overall are actually going up (particularly in home and leisure) and that, especially in the present economic situation, there is a really strong social and fiscal case for making accident prevention a key theme of the wider public health agenda.    

Our meeting provided an opportunity to highlight much of what is already going on in the health and safety scene that will help us move in the direction that Lord Young wants.    

This includes initiatives like Safety Schemes in Procurement (to simplify health and safety pre-qualification for contractors), our own National Core Competence Benchmark (to cut down on repetitious training).   

We also talked briefly about our work to enhance the assistance role of trade associations, and the positive role of safety reps and networks such as Safety Groups UK, which are reaching out to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

A joint effort
RoSPA continues to argue that all these actors need to be embraced as allies in the overall national effort for achieving better health and safety in the UK.   

In our response to the review, RoSPA has sought to focus on positive messages about health and safety, including the need for businesses to concentrate on their priority issues and the need for proportionality to ensure effective targeting of resources in cutting accidents and days lost.    

Britain has a relatively good record when it comes to notifiable accidents at work. However, when we look at the wider distribution and principal causes of work-related harms, there are clearly some big problems still to solve such as work-related road injury and work-related ill health.

Informative data

We agree with Lord Young about the need to improve accident and incident reporting arrangements (building on the results of previous Health and Safety Executive (HSE) consultation exercises) and looking perhaps at alternative options which can improve the collection of data while encouraging all businesses to focus on and learn from their near misses.    

Good data on accidents, incidents and ill health are like gold dust for prevention, whether nationally, sectorally, or within individual businesses; and used intelligently they can help, not just to save lives and reduce injuries, but to cut waste too.    

RoSPA also wants to continue to help with the HSE-led initiative (currently underway) to create a register which will provide better guidance to businesses that want to use health and safety consultants.

Consultants
Lord Young feels that too many businesses use consultants when they do not really need to and that too many consultants simply try to eliminate risk.   

RoSPA has always opposed a culture of consultant dependency since businesses should be encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible in this sphere.    

But competent consultants can be useful to help get businesses moving in the right direction and to provide on-going technical support where necessary.    

So we will work to ensure that registration does not lead to any reduction in the supply of competent consultants or, by limiting supply, end up by driving up costs for business.   

Indeed, we see the register as a first step. What is really needed, in our view, is a much broader web-based system to enable businesses to procure appropriate services (including training and occupational health) from across a whole network of UK health and safety services.   

And intermediaries, like lawyers and trade associations, need to be helped so they can give better advice about advice.

Appeals
We like Lord Young’s proposals for appeals against poor health and safety decisions.    

This was something we called for from the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, under the last administration.    

After all, the right to appeal is part of our legal heritage. But should it be limited simply to challenging local authorities that ban public events as Lord Young suggests?    

What about the client, insurer or lender that demands too much of contractors, the insured or borrowers – or conversely the business that loses out to competitors because they insist on sticking to necessary health and safety standards?

Challenges

Where we are most keen to help, however, is in fine-tuning Lord Young’s ideas about responding to health and safety challenges in what he terms “low hazard workplaces” such as offices, shops and schools. There are obviously still significant risk issues in these settings.   

For example, even small, service-based firms which might at first glance seem quite safe will certainly have significant problems such as fire and occupational road risk – not to mention issues such as slips, trips and falls, stress and manual handling injury, as well as threats and even violence.    

Then there are likely to be facilities management issues such as safe access and egress, safe cleaning, safe storage, safe vehicle parking, lifts, gas and electrical safety, and possibly asbestos and the risk of Legionnaire’s disease.    

There may also be building maintenance, and construction, design and management (CDM) activities too.   

When asked to define “non-hazardous” at a recent meeting of the CBI’s Health and Safety Panel, Lord Young accepted there was a need in schools, for example, to deal appropriately with safety in chemistry labs, workshops and other hazardous activities such as outdoor adventurous activities.    

Obviously all these issues need to be addressed adequately but in a proportionate way.   

The inescapable fact is that the distribution of the workforce has continued to change dramatically over the last three-and-a-half decades since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced.    

More people than ever work in offices, call centres, shops and so on.   

There may be fewer fatal and major RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) events in these settings but troublesome minor injury events still happen, and ill health and wellbeing issues have now become more important than accidents.   

Absence due to work-related ill health is now almost twice that due to accidental injury.

Risk vs hazard
RoSPA will continue to stress that it is the risk profile of jobs and not necessarily the hazard profile of work environments that is critical. (After all, low hazard can still mean high risk and vice versa.) For example, if you work in an office but suddenly have to do a lot of work-related driving, your risk profile increases dramatically.    

Car and van drivers who cover 25,000 miles annually for work face the same risk of being killed at work as someone working on a trawler.    

If you are in a customer-facing role you may face threats or even assault. If you work long hours in a call centre you may face stress, ergonomic problems such as musculoskeletal disorders, and risks associated with the prolonged use of computers.    

So it is not just a question of your proximity to the traditional forms of high kinetic or potential energies found in manufacturing, agricultural or construction environments.    

Many of the issues which cause accidents at work are in fact common to “industrial” and “non-industrial” settings.

Simplification

RoSPA has been arguing for more than ten years for the use of simple risk assessment templates as part of a combined risk assessment and safety policy document for SMEs. The HSE has recently picked up on this idea.   

We certainly need to discourage a belief that lengthy risk assessment documents by themselves provide protection (whether legal or real).    

Obviously they don’t. It’s all about getting the right control measures in place. The assessment in this sense is only a means to that end and should be no more complex than is entirely necessary.   A simple template should always be used as a starter for ten but equally we also need to avoid encouraging a slap dash approach and emphasise that the duty to carry out a “suitable and sufficient risk” assessment under the Management of Health and Safety Work Regulations means that more detailed work may be needed where necessary.    

And we need to remember that risk assessment should not be an afterthought but ideally be part of planning in advance so you nip potential problems in the bud through good design – which usually promotes efficiency and effectiveness too.   

There will be a lot more debate about all this as Lord Young’s recommendations are consulted on prior to implementation over the next 18 months.


Spending review implications
And the implications for health and safety generally of the Comprehensive Spending Review will also start to become clear, not least the impact of the 35 per cent cut in funding to the HSE. The higher hazard areas in HSE like its Hazardous Installations, Nuclear and Offshore Divisions are to be ring fenced, meaning the impact of the cuts on the Field Operations Division will be much more severe. Local authority enforcers too will be under greater pressure.    

So there are real fears that less HSE publicity about health and safety issues and less enforcement to deal with poor performing companies will lead to lower standards and accidents will start going up again.   

As a result, RoSPA is encouraging the whole health and safety community to think harder and more creatively about how to respond effectively to all of these developments.

For more information
Web: www.rospa.com

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