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February 27, 2015

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Safety Management

Legal. Moral. Financial: Managing health and safety

At some point in our career we will all have heard that the three key reasons for managing health and safety in our organisation are: legal, moral and financial.

By Rhaynukaa Soni

I will not go on to describe how these three elements break down because in essence this is a NEBOSH module or IOSH session. However, I do want to look at whether businesses still manage health and safety on those three principles because I for one don’t believe we do.

All too often I hear people saying their risk assessments and method statements (RAMS) are a necessary safety net, which will save them from going to prison in case something goes wrong. Besides this being fundamentally wrong, it clearly indicates that one of the most important documents is being produced to provide a legal defense and not because it will help people understand how to carry out a task or because it is considered the right thing to do.

As an aside, I do have to concede that RAMS have become an almost unrecognisable beast. A RAMS document should be able to tell anyone starting a task what the task is, and how to carry it out safely, as well as detailing the significant risks and what control measures are in place to mitigate against these. However, increasingly this document has grown into a ‘War and Peace’ style book, which inevitably is neither easy to produce nor easy to read.

Each set of RAMS now contains a COSHH assessment for each item and though a similar task may be carried out simultaneously, it is deemed necessary to brief operatives again and again on the same material. Similarly, each document contains details of the local hospital, emergency contacts, manual handling assessments – the list is almost endless!

I should state at this point that all of those items are extremely important and should be briefed to all relevant parties if it forms part of their job role. However, by briefing them continually on the same items every time a new RAMS is produced unsurprisingly leads to operatives switching off – thus rendering the whole exercise pointless. Yet it is done, time and time again, because somewhat misguidedly a myth has become the accepted norm – if operatives are thoroughly briefed, in case of an incident, legally you will be covered.

Rather than repeatedly briefing the same material under the guise of ensuring compliance we should focus on better quality briefings. The old adage is still true ‘quality over quantity’ and this is the principle that we need to return to when looking at any type of briefing. Colleagues I have spoken to over the years, as well as my own experience, have all too often stated that when asked about a particular RAMS or briefing, operatives quite often aren’t able to recall the content. They have switched off and simply sit there on autopilot, sign the sheet and then get to work.

But ensuring that each piece of paper has been briefed to the operative does not mean that the level of instruction, information, supervision and training provided is suitable and sufficient.

Some organisations have started to introduce a test at the end of their briefing to be able to record, and demonstrate if required, an understanding of what has been briefed. Given the multilingual work force we now boast in construction this is a great mechanism for the business to understand they are able to get their message across correctly. Unfortunately though as the programme is quite often a priority, anything that adds to the length of a briefing is not welcome and therefore many are either ignoring the test or have set it so that no one can actually fail – again rendering this a pointless exercise.

This all ties back to my original point of why we are managing safety. Whereas in the past the aim of the safety department was to ensure everyone was working safely and collaborating with other teams to find more efficient and innovative ways to work, now a lot of what the safety department does is ensure compliance in the event of an incident. This gives rise to knee jerk corrective actions, which often don’t address the root cause of the issue.

The current trend in safety, across a number of organisations, is to focus on behavioural-based safety and safety culture. However, it is not possible to create a positive culture or promote positive behaviours if we still insist on carrying out briefings of documents that may contain over 50 pages, but with little relevant content. We need to understand the fundamental foundation of behavioural safety is human nature and human behavior. If we can start managing health and safety for the right reasons only then can we start to convince the rest of the workforce to follow suit.

Rhaynukaa Soni CMIOSH is SHEQ Manager at JP Dunn Construction 

All views are the authors own and do not reflect in any way the views of her employer.

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Rozanne Griffiths
Rozanne Griffiths
2 years ago

I found this article highly informative and enlightening. The contributor, Mr R Soni of JP Construction makes an excellent point.