Health and Safety – Do we need it?

22nd September 2017

As part of the 2017 Wilson James Health and Safety Tour which commenced last week, several Directors have taken over the Sector Expertise Blog programme to write a series of three Health and Safety articles over the next month. 

The first, by Chief Information Officer Sean Kelly, addresses commonly held misconceptions about Health and Safety.  The second, by Peter Jacobs, Managing Director Logistics Services, will provide some thoughts on the benefits we have realised from Health and Safety generally and look to what we can expect in the future.  The third, by Darren Ward and Chas Bray, our Business Performance Director and Head of Health and Safety respectively, will consider behavioural safety and why most of our accidents are now caused by unsafe acts rather than unsafe conditions.

By Sean Kelly, Chief Information Officer 

Health and Safety is a strange thing. Everyone thinks it is a great idea in concept but almost everyone has something against it. In this article I’ll explore some of the more commonly held misconceptions:

“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is out of touch.” This is a commonly held belief; but are they? In reality HSE reviews all major accidents using experienced inspectors and collects detailed data on all reportable accidents. This gives them unrivalled and up to date information that they are very good at disseminating.

So no, they are not out of touch and they know a lot more about what kinds of incidents have happened, or what might happen, than any individual site. Even large principal contractors and client organisations do not have the spread of information that the HSE enjoys.

“The Government don’t think they are important, so have stopped funding them.” It is true that the HSE now charges Fees for Intervention (commonly known as FFI), but that’s not because of any lack of support from the wider authorities. This is just another facet of austerity.

“The Regulations are onerous, they just slow things down.” It may well be that ensuring compliance with H&S regulations slows down work rates. However, this cannot possibly be a reason to oppose them.  Doing so would indicate a return to an era without regulation. An era when life was considerably cheaper. An era when organisations had no interest in worker injuries. An era when no one, including those making such assertions regarding delays, was safe.

“RAMS are a waste of time. No one reads them, they just sign them and ignore.”   Significant work goes into the creation of appropriate RAMS.. Gone are the days when the RAMS for a simple task was 35 pages of legal text, but also gone are the days when no consideration was given to the risks inherent in a task. Now we analyse tasks to identify the risks. Then we mitigate those risks.

An operative that ignores such analysis on the basis that ‘they know better’ is a brave (some would say stupid) individual.  A supervisor or manager endorsing such behaviour is failing in their basic duty of leadership.

“The HSE doesn’t understand what we do.”  Actually, they do. The HSE have a very wide variety of in-house industry experts, and access to input from specialists across the country. But they cannot regulate for every possible variation of task. To ensure a workable system they set broad guidelines for activities and leave it to the individual experts/designers/engineers/managers to ensure their specific processes adhere to them.

This is a good thing; the alternative is over-regulation which would be far more detrimental to day-to-day activities. One might suggest that such a complaint stems in reality from either an inability or a disinclination to make a process safe. In either case forcing a change benefits everyone, even the individual or organisation forced to make it.

“Life is risky.  How safe can we expect to be?”  Life is risky. An interesting argument can be made that the Accident Frequency Rates (AFR) desired by programmes such as “Target Zero” and “Zero Harm” are in fact unrealistic since the AFR of general living is significantly higher. They are, of course, aspirations. Few people advocate a return to no car seatbelts or indeed, to smoking in any location. Even at home, most of us have smoke alarms and flame proof furniture. We no longer send children up chimney stacks. Life is risky, but we are actively making it safer for the next generation.

“The standards are too high.”  A common complaint based upon very personal analysis. In effect someone saying this is saying, “It’s too hard for me to do this, so I’d rather continue with a less safe process and cross my fingers nothing happens.”  Personally, I wouldn’t be that comfortable with such an approach being taken by anyone with whom I work, and I don’t think my standards are too high.

Is Health and Safety a good thing?                             Of course it is.   

Does it take time and resources to implement?        Of course it does.   

Is that a reason not to do it?                          Of course it isn’t.

Just because something is hard to do or is difficult to envisage as ever being complete, is not a reason to give up. As the Chinese say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Health and Safety has already taken many great steps and they haven’t all been easy. There are many more to take and they probably won’t be easy either. But the goal is healthy and safe people and I defy anyone to say that isn’t a good idea.