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May 28, 2008

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Health and safety management- Opportunity Knocks

With the new law on corporate manslaughter fresh in the minds of senior management, now is as good a time as any to undertake a root-and-branches review of your health and safety systems, says Gary Booton.

The new law on corporate manslaughter1 gives health and safety professionals a huge opportunity to gain the attention of senior management, so it’s a useful moment to show how best practice in managing health and safety can yield financial benefits for organisations.

In the run-up to the implementation of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, many senior managers attended seminars and conferences to find out what the new rules meant for them. By doing so, many will also have received a ‘refresher course’ on the importance of health and safety, and its potential business benefits.

It is one thing, however, to recognise the existence of a new threat to organisations whose health and safety management is failing; it’s quite another to know exactly what has to be done to safeguard a company from prosecution. That’s where competent health and safety know-how really pays off for organisations.

Nothing to fear

The well-managed business has nothing to fear from the new Act, which is based on effective management. Part of the new law’s definition for finding a defendant guilty states: “An organisation is guilty of an offence. . . only if the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its senior management is a substantial element in the breach referred to.”2

Any jury hearing a corporate manslaughter case must be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that failure in a company’s management or organisational arrangements presented a “substantial element” of the circumstances leading to death. That is why companies should now seize the moment to conduct a critical review of their management systems — not just as a precautionary measure but also to breathe new life into them, deliver ongoing improvement, and save money by reducing exposure to risk.

Systems to manage health and safety, quality, and environmental issues are all built from the same components and share a common architecture, which has the continual improvement cycle of ‘plan, deliver, monitor, review’ at its heart.3 The HSE describes safety management systems as: “The means by which an organisation controls risk through the management process.” While there are other definitions, this one really hits the nail on the head.

A company’s health and safety policy must be owned by its senior management. It needs to remain relevant to the business and must therefore be updated periodically. The primary role of the policy is to state strategic direction, and show where the company wants to be in terms of its health and safety management. To achieve policy objectives, someone has to be responsible, so there should be a clear statement of who does what, and how the team will go about delivering the desired results.

To translate this high-level strategic vision into reality, there must be both real and visible leadership from the top, and a commitment to deliver down through the business. Managers and supervisors are the people who can make the vision a reality but this can only be delivered with the active involvement of the workforce. The style of involvement is not so important, providing it achieves the aim of turning vision into reality.

Planning and implementation

The planning and delivery process should be used to break down significant tasks into bite-sized pieces that represent milestones on the route to achieving the policy’s goals (as an absolute minimum, companies must implement risk-control measures to prevent harm coming to workers and others). By setting internal standards, management can show their whole organisation what is expected. This approach will help deliver short to medium-term objectives, which are the building blocks for achieving a company’s stated strategic objectives.

Without monitoring, there is no way to assess whether performance is good, bad, or indifferent. Plus, what gets measured is usually what gets done, especially in a safety management system. Not only will monitoring result in direct readings but if done well it will provide insights into competence and training needs.

Reactive monitoring, though important, can only measure failure. However, it is important to realise that under the new corporate manslaughter legislation, a company now faces the peril of failing to learn from corporate intelligence, and leaving open the possibility that today’s near-miss will become tomorrow’s fatality. In this context, reactive monitoring should be used to cast a wide net to gather near-miss information, as well as injury and illness data, enabling organisations to learn from experience.

Active monitoring, on the other hand, is a bit like a health and safety equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster — often discussed but rarely seen. At the heart of an effective system for active monitoring there must be high levels of trust throughout an organisation, as only in this way will people feel empowered to highlight weaknesses in existing arrangements. Ultimately, as with an effective quality management system, improvement opportunities tell us more than failures.

Senior management must also be committed to the continual review of health and safety arrangements and reconsideration of its policy. Now that there is a sharper focus on the role of management teams, it is fair to expect senior management to give more consideration to this part of the process, and this activity should disseminate a powerful signal throughout the enterprise.

HSC/IoD guidance

Joint guidance issued by the (former) Health and Safety Commission and the Institute of Directors, under the title, Leading health and safety at work,4 will be a key reference point as the implications for business of the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act become clearer. For the health and safety practitioner, there is nothing particularly new in the guide. However, given the publicity that the new Act has generated, there is a great opportunity to get health and safety noticed by boards of directors.

This could prove particularly true of the well-tripped out mantra: ‘Good health and safety is good business’. While a snappy tag-line, for many businesses health and safety can seem like just another expense. However, the HSC and IoD believe otherwise, and list several benefits, including:

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