The challenges that come with introducing site visits
In this article, Gina Siebler, Health and Safety Advisor at Shepherds Bush Housing Group, discusses introducing site visits at an organisation that has never had them before, and the challenges which she had to overcome during the process.
“I came from a small organisation where site visits were at the heart of how we managed health & safety. I had always enjoyed this interaction and found I gain a deeper understanding of what was going on for our front-line operatives by spending time talking to them. When I joined Shepherds Bush Housing Group (SBHG), in September 2020, one of the first things I implemented within the organisation was a routine of site visits with our Repairs Operatives at the point of work.”
Why do a site visit?
“I find site visits have many functions. The obvious one is that I can see if the operatives are working in accordance with their method statements and following the control measures set out in the risk assessment. The other one is that it helps me see if the documented processes are actually practical for our colleagues.
“I have also found them to help improve safety culture as they can break that office worker to field worker barrier. My technical background does give me the advantage that allows me to engage more effectively with the worker. I have been in their shoes, not specifically within their specific industry, but I have worked in the trade and understand the challenges they face. This helps me be compassionate with the operative, which in turn makes them feel much more comfortable to raise their concerns and also make constructive suggestions to help improve processes.
“One example of improvement I implemented was the PAT testing of operatives’ tools. During some of my visits I observed that operatives were using specialised tools. This meant that they had fallen outside of the PAT testing programme. I raised this with the operations manager who within a week ensured that all tools, including specialised tools, were included in the programme and were tested.”
What are the challenges I’ve faced?
“I joined SBHG as part of a new H&S team. A few months prior, a new Health, Safety and Wellbeing Strategy had been developed and was in the process of being implemented. Prior to this, the organisation had taken a less formal approach to H&S which meant many new challenges for both parties. No-one knew what to expect!
“The first challenge was the planning phase as I had no idea of how jobs were booked. This meant I had to develop stronger relationships with the planners to understand how appointment scheduling worked. Every week the day before I wanted to head out, I would liaise with the planners, and they would give me a list of potential operatives I could go see. Not only did this improve H&S engagement across the organisation, but it also allowed me invaluable insight into how the operatives work on a day-to-day basis.
“The challenge that then followed was how I was going to find the operatives on the day, when the majority of them were doing one-hour jobs in tenants’ properties. To counteract the everchanging diaries of operatives, I would always call them prior to my arrival to ensure they hadn’t been delayed or reassigned. As this whole process was new, I wasn’t sure whether the operatives would feel reassured or sceptical from my presence. These informal face-to-face meetings allowed operatives to feel comfortable and they also allowed operatives the opportunity to understand the rationale and benefits behind the health, safety and wellbeing strategy.
How did I approach the site visit?
“I met with the operative and tried to keep it as informal as possible. I wanted to see what they were doing and how they worked without putting the pressure on them that made them feel like they were under examination. I usually followed the same structure at each site visit, which was as follows:
- Objective of their current task
- What were they there to do?
- Risk assessment
- Where I observed an opportunity of risk, I would dig deeper, to see if they understood the concept of a risk assessment. An example of this would normally be when chemicals were used.
- Emergency plan
- What would happen if something went wrong? Such as the gas pipe got struck.
- Waste management
- How do they dispose of their waste? Particularly hazardous waste, e.g., light bulbs.
“As well as this, I would also check on their mental wellbeing. I would ask how they were doing whilst working through the pandemic. I would see if there was anything that I could do to help them. I would also see if they were struggling with anything further. I would check they were aware of the support that existed within the organisation such as the employee assistance programme and so on.
“Generally, during my site visits I try to avoid note taking. Distractions can lead to incidents occurring and note taking will put unnecessary stress on the operative as it makes them feel like they are being tested. I mean, who doesn’t get nervous by someone standing next to you scribbling notes that you can’t see whilst asking you questions about what you are doing?
“One key thing I focus on achieving at each site visit is to find ways for the operative to really show pride in their work and competence, which raises their confidence and makes them less nervous of my presence. If I observe questionable practises, then I will query it in such a way that allows me to understand their thought process. If my suspicions were correct and I establish my observation is unsafe work practises, then I will probe further to try and get them to review their working practise themselves.
“Site visits are a great way to also educate the operative in an informal manner. I will ask questions on their work practises, to really understand their thought process. This helps identify potential weakness’ in their understanding of H&S matters. A recent example was where I spoke to one of the teams that utilises petrol powered tools and I reviewed whether they understood PPE required for those. Both workers understood they needed to wear the ear defenders with the petrol-powered tools but were unsure how they would know when they needed to wear them for what tools. This was a great opportunity to informally educate them. I went through their tools and showed them how they can find out what noise each produces and then explained to them the three exposure limits.”
“Following each day of site visits, I would write a summary of the day which would be forwarded to both my line manager and the operatives line manager. I would outline both good and bad practices observed. I would also detail both concerns and recommendations for improvements.
“At SBHA we also have a Honey Points system, where credit is given internally when a colleague has gone above and beyond at work. For me, this Honey Points system provides the perfect opportunity to reward colleagues who are showing safe working practises. It helps build a positive H&S culture as they feel recognised for their work.
“Overall, the site visits received very positive feedback. There was the odd operative that felt like they were just being watched, whereas most felt like they had a voice. It was the perfect opportunity for the organisation to have the ‘middle-man’ that was not directly working in their team.”
“In my previous role, I developed a formal approach to site visits. This involved a form that I would complete following each visit, which had the same set of items to review each time. I knew the organisation very well and each team member had complete confidence in my approach to H&S, mainly as I had established the system from scratch and had worked my way up from technician to H&S.
“At SBHA I took a more informal approach. Our main focus was to build a positive relationship between H&S and the operatives. We wanted to gain their trust in order for us to work more effectively together.
“Since undertaking these site visits, there has been an increase in direct engagement from the workforce with regards to H&S. Operatives will call us if they are uncertain about something, e.g. when they are unsure whether a job is safe. Supervisors and line managers also now include a H&S representative in any of their new starters’ induction process.
“Overall, the site visits have achieved their desired outcome. As these continue to develop positively, I plan to formalise the process. This will allow the opportunity for these to become a standard practical approach from H&S within the organisation.”
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