Taking a partnership approach to safety

Adam Bernstein
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Employers need to introduce their workforce to the idea that health and safety rules are for the benefit of all if they’re to become part of a company’s culture

It’s one thing to have health and safety policies, but it’s quite another for employees to adhere to them. For many employers, health and safety compliance involves a combination of warnings and staff worries about job loss or prosecution. But is there a better way? Could employees be ‘taught’ to want to comply rather than be beaten around the head with a stick?

The data speaks
The problem, according to James Lowe, regulatory partner at Wright Hassall, is that while workers do not intend to harm themselves or others, there are hundreds of thousands of workplace injuries reported each year. He cites 2021 data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which counted some 400,000 non-fatal injuries in the year along with 142 fatal accidents. Interestingly, the numbers for 2019 and 2020 were worse – 600,000 and 700,000 injuries along with 147 and 111 deaths respectively.

Lowe thinks these numbers suggest that “there is a gap between organisations having health and safety practices, and workers properly adhering to them”. He says that professionals from various disciplines investigate incidents and offer solutions to get both employers and employees to not merely to comply with rules, “but to personally embrace a positive health and safety culture”.

But this is not an easy task, especially because, as Abi Morley, a lawyer in the Eversheds Sutherland EHS team, points out: “The UK’s legal system holds individuals to account under Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This makes the possibility of prosecution a real risk.”

And for Lowe, it’s important to note: “Both employers and employees have legal duties to achieve safe and healthy workplaces.

If either fails, then they risk being prosecuted, especially if someone is harmed.”

But beyond the legal disincentive, how should employees be punished if they transgress?

Simply put, employers must not only assess workplace risks and develop policies, they must also properly inform employees about these practices, and train and supervise them to ensure that they understand all procedures.

But from an employee perspective, they must understand that they are obliged to comply with health and safety procedures, and, more generally, take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and others in their workplace.

Of course, no one wants to achieve compliance with health and safety practices from the threat of legal consequences. But as Lowe identifies: “For some, the possibility of prosecution will act as a
deterrent to horseplay or poor practices.” Nevertheless, he thinks the law is the correct starting point in establishing a positive workplace culture of health and safety as it obliges consultation between employers and safety representatives.

From a practical standpoint Morley argues that ‘carrots’ are more effective than ‘sticks’ as they help employees internalise safety principles. But she says they are not without fault – “When something goes wrong, it is normal to punish individuals involved. But carrots also lose potency over time.”

Good training
One route to success is to get staff to trust that rules and regulations are for their benefit rather than for some petty internal reason. Morley says: “Good employers are upfront about what they need from staff in the first place. This means employees need to understand what is required, rather than having to interpret labyrinthian procedures or guess how methods have evolved.”

She thinks that inductions are a good place to begin with management informing employees exactly what is required from the moment they start work.

And Lowe agrees. He knows from experience that not every employee understands that their actions or omissions may cause or contribute to incidents in the workplace. He says: “This sense of responsibility will only be fostered if the organisation has clearly stated and communicated health and safety policies and procedures, which are implemented through a culture of safety.”

This means that the leadership needs to show a commitment to achieving such a culture by setting an example, listening to the views and concerns of all employees, and by allocating sufficient resources to implement measures designed to prevent incidents.

Health and safety, in other words, needs to be integrated into business processes rather than merely being an unavoidable add-on.

As a lawyer, Morley often carries out deep dive reviews into client health and safety systems. Part of such exercises often involve issuing and interpreting staff surveys. She says: “There is constant surprise at what surveys reveal and the low regard that respondents have for inductions which are often perceived as ‘going through the motions’.”

In her view, induction programmes must be both engaging and worthwhile in the eyes of the audience and not seen as a tick box exercise. Employers need to think about their key messages and convey them effectively.

She’s seen many employers use training matrices to detail ‘health and safety’. However, this, she finds, can often present a mixed message. But as she comments: “Health and safety is not separate to operational integrity. Training courses on how to use equipment or follow a process are all based on completing tasks competently and safely. It’s essential then that employers change the language used internally to ensure that safety is embedded into its training.”

Trainers have learned that different people require different approaches. Whether visual, auditory or in terms of their physical position, people respond to different stimuli in developing their learning. This means that the most successful training involves mixing up the way management communicates with its teams and don’t just default to PowerPoint slides.

Another point that Morley makes is that management shouldn’t expect all job roles to internalise good safety in the same way – for what works in the office may not work on the factory floor, and vice versa.

As she says: “It’s much better to get employees to speak the language of safety. Learning theory suggests that people will remember things better if they explain a new concept to a colleague shortly after understanding it themselves; this aids retention and improves ability to carry out the task.”

Similarly, management must be present, accountable and leading from the front. Employees respond best if they can see leaders behaving in a way that they are also expected to behave. As they say, generals lead from the front.

So, the goal, when introducing a workforce to health and safety compliance, is to create a new norm where employees choose to follow health and safety policies.

And this is a message that Lowe espouses because, as he says: “Despite rigorous laws and potentially serious penalties, things still go wrong in the workplace. Analysis by the HSE of various major
incidents identified several common factors.”

And he details them as including a lack of leadership commitment, unhelpful attitudes, unsafe behaviours, risk management that is not fit for purpose and a lack of oversight of potential problems. Lowe believes that when these aspects of an organisation become normalised, consequences can follow.

He gives an example – the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others. The investigation found that poor process safety culture was a key contributing factor. He explains: “BP had a multiplicity of safety procedures and processes, but employees at all levels had been unable to see the risks or to understand process safety. BP concluded that the way to
transform this unsafe culture was to change the attitudes and behaviours of its leadership so that building health and safety capacity among employees was prioritised.”

This attitude is at the core of the HSE’s beliefs. It has previously stated: “Safety culture is an important topic, but time consuming to inspect… and difficult to tackle. The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions and competencies of an organisation’s health and safety management. Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust.”

Lowe sees the logic in this. He thinks that “the goal of organisations should not simply be to avoid blame, but to have a safe and healthy workplace”. He says: “All too often, the stance of leadership is similar to that of the manager at one waste-recycling plant – when an employee was killed after coming into contact with dangerous machinery, the manager simply alleged he was not responsible; it was someone else’s job.”

It shouldn’t need saying, but incorporating health and safety is an ongoing process. It involves employers and employees jointly solving problems and putting in place feedback processes. Further – and this is emphasised by Lowe – “appropriate, regular training should take place in normal working hours, and this should be refreshed frequently”.

And the reason for regular and ongoing intervention is that unsafe behaviours sometimes develop in situations that are new and have not previously been envisaged. The solution for Lowe is the regular sharing of novel situations faced and lessons learned. And specifically, “where unsafe behaviour does occur, management should aim to challenge this positively – with the aim of correcting it in the future rather than punishing it in the moment”.

Back to the ‘carrot’ – can incentives help?
Possibly, but only if implemented the right way. The problem is that a simple goal of aiming for a whole year without an accident can just lead to cover-ups and under-reporting, as well as blame when targets – and rewards – are missed.

This is why Lowe thinks it better to install behaviour-based incentives where employees are encouraged to identify risks before an incident occurs. As he says: “There may even be a reward or recognition given when incidents are reported. Such an approach is consistent with an aim to measure safety culture proactively rather than only when an incident occurs. It gives the opportunity to resolve issues before they become problems.”

And for those wanting to proactively instil a positive culture, there are safety standards HSG65 and the new ISO 45001 which Lowe describes as placing a heavy emphasis on taking steps to improve employee engagement and tracking safety culture. But to meet these standards, businesses need to ensure that health and safety is not seen as the function of a person or team, but rather of everyone.

Morley offers a more succinct four-step route: management commitment which produces higher levels of motivation and concern for health and safety throughout the organisation; visible management who lead by example; good communication between all levels of employees who are taken seriously; and inspection via a suitable cross-section of the company to build a helpful picture of the overall style of the company.

Ultimately, she thinks that “change needs to be authentic with more boots on the ground; bonuses don’t always change behaviour in the way they are intended to”.

In conclusion
The hardest step to take is the first. Employers should introduce their workforce to the idea that health and safety policies should be followed because they want to and not from a fear of punishment.

Even so, management must accept healthy challenges while encouraging the right behaviour themselves by setting examples. The only other way to seek compliance is with the stick of regulatory intervention, and that can prove painful.



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