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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
February 25, 2008

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Countering negativity in health and safety

When the national media carry negative reports about health and safety, or the general public sound off about it, we can put it down to ignorance of the subject on their part. But when that negativity is coming from those actually responsible for health and safety, it’s far more of a concern, as Gary Fallaize found out when his company surveyed duty-holders.

There is no doubting that legislation over the last 30 years has helped secure significant improvements in health and safety in the workplace, to the great benefit of society and the economy. Few employers or employees these days would deny that health and safety is of vital importance, since poor health and safety can have a catastrophic effect on the lives of individuals, as well as on a company’s success.

Nevertheless, complaints and concerns about over-complication of regulations and unnecessary red tape are continuing to rise, and this has certainly done much to tarnish health and safety’s reputation.

Although my fellow author in this issue, Malcolm Darvill, concludes that the tide of legislation, and corresponding negativity, is now receding, the results of a survey1 we recently carried out to discover whether or not the message was getting through that health and safety doesn’t need to be complicated suggest another story.

In all, the directors of 230 companies, the majority of which have a turnover of £3m or more, were asked their views. Given that these people have ultimate responsibility for health and safety in their organisation, the results are illuminating, to say the least. One could even go so far as to say they demonstrate that the state of health and safety has reached critical levels, and prevailing attitudes to it are decidedly unhealthy.


Take these findings for starters: 40 per cent of those questioned feel that the cautiousness which has bred the current health and safety environment is stifling business, while 42 per cent believe that health and safety demands have become so unreasonable that there is a risk of devaluing the very idea of health and safety. When asked about the value of health and safety regulations, one in ten said that, in their opinion, around half are worthless and that, rather than protecting workers, this legislation could actually be putting them at risk.

So, it looks as though the message that health and safety need not be a burden is, despite the efforts of the HSE, IOSH and others, not being shouted loud enough to be heard. It IS a burden, according to more than one in ten (16 per cent) of those surveyed overall, and almost one in four in the higher-risk manufacturing sector.

The perennial argument that health and safety costs money and therefore affects production is also alive and well, with a fifth of those questioned saying that health and safety regulation is affecting their business’s ability to improve their production line.


It is an absolute given that training is essential for any job and in every organisation, and health and safety training — far from being the exception to this rule — is surely its proof. It is therefore extremely worrying that 5 per cent of the directors who took part in this survey do not see health and safety training as something their staff need in order to do their job effectively. A fifth said it was either carried out only at induction stage, or only a few staff received any formal training at all.

This lethargy has obviously permeated down the line to staff, more than a third (36 per cent) of whom, according to respondents, are either reluctant to learn, or don’t see the point. What happened to the principle that education and training hold the key to understanding health and safety and making it work for rather than against other priorities?

It goes without saying that bosses of most companies of any size would consider it vital to have at least one fully-trained and dedicated person (or even a dedicated team) in charge of finance, or sales and marketing, but in many companies the person with ultimate responsibility for health and safety is juggling it with other elements of their job.

At best this means they are not giving it their full attention and, at worst, that they lack the experience and/or specialist training that would enable them to understand the limits of what they are allowed to do. Undoubtedly, they also have other priorities, which may be at odds with health and safety, and so they compromise the focus they give to it and end up erring on the side of caution. Eventually we end up with the situation we currently have, where rules and regulations are applied incorrectly, or over-zealously, and health and safety is suddenly to blame for everything.

Despite the fact that half of those taking part in the study said they believe new health and safety legislation is introduced too often for managers and workers to keep sufficiently abreast of it, a significant proportion of the companies involved entrust health and safety needs to either their MD or CEO. Inevitably, these are busy people, with huge demands on their time. They are naturally primarily concerned with profitability, which is perceived — albeit erroneously — to be diametrically opposed to health and safety. Of those questioned, 13 per cent of those in charge of health and safety don’t really take it seriously and just see it as an addition to their overall tasks.

What many respondents failed to realise is that with a relatively low level of training for just one individual, MDs could delegate responsibility for health and safety to one of their managers. This would free up their own time to concentrate on other business issues, as well as having the benefit of a team member who has been trained to understand exactly what can and cannot be done.


But even those companies that do employ a dedicated health and safety manager assign them surprisingly little influence and power over operations where health and safety should be one of the most crucial issues. The survey showed that MDs/CEOs and finance directors wield significant power over decisions affecting the hazardous area of production, and since their demands are seen to be opposed to those of the health and safety manager, this is a real problem.

It is not a new observation that health and safety features most strongly on the radar where it is seen to impact directly on profitability and expenditure. A resounding 85 per cent of respondents believe that insurance premiums should reflect a business’s health and safety policy, but fewer than three quarters (73 per cent) of health and safety managers questioned are driven by a desire to protect employees. The other 27 per cent are doing it out of a fear of prosecution, or just because they are legally obliged to do so.

While this is obviously alarming, it can also be viewed in a more positive light, in that most companies do want to make a difference but need help to identify ways of doing so that do not require them to neglect other business priorities in the process.


Despite the difficulties those with specific responsibility for health and safety believe they are facing, only 13 per cent do not see themselves working in health and safety in five years’ time, and only 15 per cent do not plan to make a career of it. What is vital, therefore, is that these respondents and their peers do not become further disillusioned.

Nearly half (48 per cent) chose to become involved in health and safety because they thought they could really make a difference — the impetus for excellent health and safety lies with such keen professionals. Continued efforts by the HSE and organisations like IOSH, coupled with investment in effective training, should ultimately help ensure that health and safety and the people who work within it are valued and respected, and are armed with the information they need to help them make a great difference to all concerned.

All too often health and safety is unfairly seen as being the root of all evil in the business world. But companies who are giving it the respect it deserves know that it contributes to their other business objectives rather than detracts from them.


1 To obtain a copy of RRC Training’s report, Managing Safety, e-mail: [email protected]


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