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March 22, 2018

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Changing negative attitudes to safety in builders merchants

Health and safety may not be a favourite topic of conversation in a builders merchant. Once a negative perception of health and safety becomes embedded among your workforce, it is not easy to shake it off.

But amid a climate of changing legislation, ‘new’ sentencing guidelines, and the ongoing uncertainty of Brexit, it is more important than ever that managers and merchant owners find a way to bring their entire staff in line with the latest safety procedures for merchants.

How do you change attitudes towards health and safety in your workplace?

It’s not easy to change attitudes towards health and safety, particularly on sites where there has been a history of cutting corners by avoiding safe working practices. However, for merchant owners and senior managers, the stakes could not be higher.

More and more builders merchants are subject to Environmental Health Officer ‘topic inspections’, tasked by the HSE to reduce accident statistics, and fines are being levied even in cases where an injury or accident has not yet occurred. In 2016 alone, the top twenty health and safety infractions amounted to more than £38.5m in fines. In fact, the average fine has risen by a massive 148 per cent, thanks to the ‘new’ sentencing guidelines taking a tough approach and fining merchants proportional to turnover.

Health and safety wins are rarely quick and easy, but embracing a health and safety culture can help to future-proof an organisation. But before any new action is taken to change attitudes towards builders merchants safety, you can expect to encounter a few challenges.

  • An unwillingness to change attitudes: One of the chief challenges for managers can be convincing boots-on-the ground workers to adapt to new working practices, especially if there is a history of ‘this is how things have always been done’.
  • Poor understanding of time requirements: Generating a robust safety culture will be time intensive for management.
  • No useful action taken: Anyone can pay lip service to health and safety, but unless you try to steer genuine useful practical improvements in working practices then employees will not engage and no effective cultural change will be achieved.

Eight ways to tackle health and safety attitudes right now

There are a few things that every business owner can do right now to encourage a change in the safety culture of your merchant.

  1. Management lead by example: This could be as simple as consistently wearing high-visibility clothing, safety boots, or stopping mobile phone use while in the yard.
  2. Consulting staff:  Managers should consult with employees to learn more about their tasks and any concerns that they may have about new or emerging risks on site.  Listening to staff to understand their job and the pressures they face may help in formulating safety improvements that are practical to implement.
  3. Aim for consistency: A consistent approach to health and safety will help to reinforce positive behaviour. Start by securing a clear commitment from management before encouraging all staff to invest in safety in some small way on a daily basis.
  4. Staff training: In order for staff to value their training it shouldn’t just be treated as a ‘tick box exercise’. Carrying out periodical refresher sessions can help ensure that bad habits are eliminated and best practice sticks. Focus particularly on higher risk work activities or areas where there is a higher turnover of staff.
  5. Commit to fairness: Any health and safety policies need to be sensible and proportionate, and should never be perceived as a cover for cost-cutting, or validating unpopular policies. As HSE chairman Jonathan Rees said: “health and safety is not about long forms, back-covering or stifling initiative. It’s about recognising real risks, tackling them in a balanced way and watching out for each other. It’s about keeping people safe, not stopping their lives”.
  6. Follow through: Any missed steps can potentially be catastrophic, and this is a particular concern when it comes to safety equipment. Managers need to make sure that any safety equipment or personal protective equipment is fit for purpose. A recent TUC report found that 29 per cent of women found their safety equipment to be poor fitting and uncomfortable – raising the risk of injury as a result. Management need to be open to change and prepared to enforce change fairly when confronted with an attitude of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ even through disciplinary procedures if need be.
  7. Commit to genuine results and progress: All too often the role of ‘H&S Manager’ is allocated to a manager just to tick a box and ease the burden on the Managing Director without providing adequate training, a budget or necessary support for that role. Training managers for the roles they are given empowers them to build their competence, and helps your organisation avoid the price of accidents in terms of injury, fines, and reputational cost. It is also important to learn from accidents, near misses and safety performance indicators to bring about continual improvement.
  8. Take a proactive approach: It is no longer viable to simply react to accidents as and when they occur. Taking a proactive approach can actually benefit your business, as you will save time and money in the long term and reinforce your company’s health and safety culture.


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