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May 11, 2010

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SHE10 – Honesty is the best policy, says construction chief

Construction safety – is it working? Lincsafe’s John Lacey posed this question at the Sperian round-table session at Safety & Health Expo today, adding that if the answer is ‘no’, then don’t shoot the messenger!


Given that John, the chair of the IOSH Construction Group, was speaking to an invited audience of safety and health professionals, it was unlikely that any guns would be drawn on him but nevertheless, he focused in his presentation on reminding practitioners of the basics of getting their messages right, proportionate, and honest.


He said: “I am concerned at the number of messages out there at the moment – concerned that people either don’t understand them, or misinterpret them.”


Most of these messages, he suggested, are coming from the media, which has set health and safety up as a purely risk-averse issue. Society’s view of it, therefore, is primarily – and erroneously – informed via scaremongering headlines in the Sun and the Daily Mail.


According to John, practitioners have to get beyond this and ask themselves what their role truly is, and how they can fulfil it. Is it about protecting their employer, the employees, themselves, or society as a whole? John suggested that it is really an amalgam of all of these but how far should practitioners go? He explained: “Our options are fairly limited, and we may have to go down the route of trying to protect all, but can we actually do that? I don’t think so. You can really only protect some of the people some of the time – trying to do otherwise just leads us to being risk-averse.”


Echoing Judith Donovan’s comments in her opening address to Expo delegates this morning, John said the HSE’s strategy promotes a sensible approach to risk, and reminded the audience that this is also supported by the concept of reasonable practicability. But he acknowledged that this is all well and good until something goes wrong and the HSE inspector turns up with a book to throw at you!


The problem, John believes, is that people these days don’t take a balanced view. “There are reasonably practicable elements in most situations,” he argued, “and you have to debate them. If it comes down to it the courts will decide, but too often we just roll over and give in, and that is a worry.”


John lamented the fact that we now seem to be returning to a situation similar to pre-Robens Britain, when health and safety legislation was much more prescriptive. Again agreeing with Judith Donovan, he said the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1975 washed all that way and issued in a new era of goal-setting legislation, which “got people thinking, weighing up, evaluating”.


Now, however, we have moved away from that ideal of ‘risk management’ towards risk aversion and avoidance – a situation John refers to as “safety dictation”. He said: “The problem with that is it’s a ‘one size fits all’ approach but that doesn’t work. Too many organisations have such ‘one-size’ policies but you need to do things based on evidence, not on knee-jerk reactions.”


John finished up by asking the audience another, very blunt, question: has the safety and health profession lost the plot? If it has, he suggested, the way to remedy the situation is to really think about how you deliver your messages: “Think about what you say, and how it is interpreted. If you specify something to be worn, or done, don’t impose it willy-nilly. Test it, speak to people, make it reasonably practicable, and above all, don’t dictate.”


Finally, he advised practitioners to always review their policies because all the procedures in the world are useless if they are not fit for purpose. He conceded that this was all basic advice, but “it’s often the basic things that go wrong”.


John concluded: “Above all, be honest with people and you will earn their respect. And, if they respect you, they won’t shoot you!”


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