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November 26, 2015

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How businesses can improve health and safety in the face of new regulations

By Mary Clarke, Cognisco 

New sentencing guidelines[i] for health and safety offences come into effect in February 2016 and are set to be a big game changer in terms of the punishment that organisations and individuals can receive for breaches.

Buisnesses and individuals could face much greater fines[ii], and more individuals could be imprisoned for serious offences than ever before. If employers haven’t done so already they need to urgently review their health and safety procedures to ensure they as robust as possible, given the consequences of any breaches are to become much harsher.

The aim of the guidelines are to ensure a consistent, fair and proportionate approach to sentencing organisations or individuals who are convicted of corporate manslaughter, health and safety and food safety and hygiene offences, by not following the proper health and safety regulations.

The Health and Safety Act 1974 is the main piece of UK health and safety legislation and it places a duty on all employers, “to ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, the health, safety and welfare at work” of all employees. Under the new guidelines the courts now have even greater powers of enforcement for a whole range of offences.

According to the Sentencing Council[iii] the offences that come under the guidelines are very varied and could include a building firm that causes the death of an employee by not providing the proper equipment for working at height, a restaurant that causes an outbreak of e. coli poisoning through unsafe food preparation, a manufacturer that causes injury to a new worker by not providing training for operating machinery or a gas fitter whose sub-standard work leads to the risk of an explosion in someone’s home.

Within organisations human error is one of the biggest risk factors when it comes to health and safety. A company can have all the processes and procedures in the world but unless employees are carrying them out correctly then they, customers and even the public at large could be at risk from injury or even death.

Over the years we’ve assessed thousands of employees across many industries and evidence suggests that around 30% of any workforce misunderstands some aspects of their role, which can lead to errors and mistakes which impact health and safety. Understanding why errors are occurring is crucial, however, many companies don’t place enough emphasis on understanding or getting to the bottom of root causes that determine how people behave at work.

A mistake many make is to keep using the same types of employee assessment, training, and learning and development methods they have always done; however, this is unlikely to be the best solution as companies never actually fully understand where their people risk lies.

One industry where understanding people risk is imperative is utilities and we have been working with companies in this sector to help mitigate people risk and improve health and safety. In the utilities sector one of the biggest risks for engineers is accidentally striking underground cables. An estimated 60,000 underground cable strikes occur every year which can cause serious injury or death and cost businesses millions of pounds in associated damages and compensation costs.

Utilities companies have over the years invested heavily in training to try to prevent cable strikes, however, many have failed. One of the shortcomings has been the focus on assessing knowledge rather than how people apply their knowledge on the job. Just because someone has attended a training course, it doesn’t mean they are competent and confident and can apply all their knowledge correctly on the job.

We have helped several utilities companies address the issue of cable strikes by developing the Cable Avoidance Evaluation, based on our unique methodology which has been devised to get to the root causes of behaviour and why someone acts the way they do at work. This assessment has helped reduce the risk of underground cable strikes and improve safety standards, ensuring compliance with all safety standards.

The assessment uses situational judgement questions based on realistic scenarios that engineers encounter daily and measures a unique combination of people’s knowledge, competence and confidence in all aspects of their roles. The results drill down into the detail of what people know, as well as how they would apply their knowledge on the job which highlights their likely behaviour and attitude towards risk. The assessments also identify specific knowledge gaps and training needs so they can be addressed.

The methodology and situational judgement assessments, reveal what individuals truly know and understand, and what they misunderstand – so the risk factors and how confident they are in applying their knowledge. By building up a picture of an individual’s or teams’ likely behaviour in certain situations and where potential risks lie, a company can plan for remedial action.

This new approach to assessing employees can be adapted and used by any organisation to improve health and safety, and in light of the new legislation is something more companies should be consider implementing to help mitigate their people risk.

Mary ClarkeMary Clarke is CEO of Cognisco




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