Box-ticking is letting H&S down

Before I start, I have a lot of time for health and safety (H&S). I am not one of those people who complains that H&S is all nonsense and a complete waste of time.

The figures are clear. The UN estimates 2.78 million people die every year from occupational accidents and work-related diseases, and a further 374 million suffer non-fatal occupational accidents. That’s a greater number than deaths from road accidents (999,000), war (502,000), violence (563,000) and HIV/AIDS (312,000) combined.

In our own country, the figures are still shocking. In the period 2021/2022, figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that 565,000 workers sustained an injury at work and 123 died. That’s 123 people who went to work and didn’t go home.

H&S is important. I’ve found myself defending H&S on more than one occasion during meetings where the favourite topic of H&S-bashing has arisen. To choose a year from the modern era at random, the UK had 651 workplace deaths in 1974. The move away from heavy industry to office-based work will have had a major impact on the figure but even in 1991/1992 we still had 276 deaths. I think we must thank changing attitudes to H&S for the continued reduction from 276 to 123.

So, I’m not here to just attack H&S. What I want to see is effective H&S that properly reduces risk. I fully understand the impact an injury, let alone death, can have on a family, business and the wider community. Ideally, the figure of 123 should be zero and a major part of achieving that must come from creating an effective culture of H&S.

My problem is that it has to be the right type of H&S. All H&S must be proactive to create a safe work environment where the job gets done and no one (employee, customer, bystander, etc.) gets injured. It doesn’t seem, however, that this is currently the direction of travel in the way H&S is being administered.

What we are increasingly seeing, and this has certainly got a lot worse since COVID-19 and the move towards homeworking, is a culture of box-ticking. I feel the focus should always be on protecting people but, if the focus is on ticking a box, then it could be argued the focus has shifted towards ensuring the business is protected.

A case in point is a large pigeon proofing job we recently undertook near the Thames. Our risk assessments (RA) and method statements (MS) were drawn up after a thorough survey of the site. We considered all hazards, with mitigating actions implemented to minimize risk. Our focus, as always, was on people.

Quite rightly, the project team then got their H&S advisors involved. Now, yet again, I must state, I have nothing against H&S advisors. They can do an invaluable task, offering advice on how to make things even safer and, when the work is collaborative, the job gets done and it gets done safer.

However, over the years, I’ve seen more and more of these experts making their comments from behind a desk. I’m not sure how someone can truly make valued judgements if they never leave their office. Visiting the site should be the first port of call for any H&S specialist. They need to have a true understanding of the environment and the job that needs to be done to offer truly valuable input into the H&S of a site. That cannot be done in a converted bedroom/office that is miles away.

To me, it looks increasingly like RAs and MSs are being rejected by H&S advisers because they are not in quite the right format. As a person who is responsible for the health and safety of twenty employees and countless other stakeholders, I am less interested in what format a document is in than the fact of whether it makes the work environment safer. Everyone has their favourite format, and if you happen to get an H&S advisor who likes a different format, then there seems to be less and less room for manoeuvre.

This can have real world consequences. Current formats for RAs and MSs are long, complex to write and, mostly important, sometimes difficult for the staff actually doing the work to understand. It feels like the focus is on protecting the business, the H&S advisor, investment, etc., but not on protecting the person on the roof.

Luckily for me, our technicians are knowledgeable and conscientious, but I can easily imagine a situation where the technician quickly flips to the end of the report and signs their name without reading it. If they can’t see where the value is because it is hidden in a load of box ticking guff, then it has no value. After all, how often have you simply wound down to the end of terms and conditions on a new phone contract or hire-purchase agreement without actually reading them?!?

My problem also isn’t that H&S is taught badly. I’m sure IOSHH courses retain a focus on the health and welfare of groups that could be impacted by H&S failings. It’s what happens when H&S specialists leave the classroom that seems to be the problem. I suppose, once you are in the work environment, your objectives change and keeping your job becomes a contributing factor.

Let me be clear, this isn’t every H&S specialist. Over the years I’ve worked with some brilliant H&S people. When we have the same goal – getting a job that needs to be done, done safely – then we can create a harmonious relationship that results in a safer work environment.

I’m reminded of something an ex-colleague and friend of mine, Mark Donnelly, once told me. He worked for a company with a very knowledgeable internal H&S advisor who said: the person on any site who should have the best knowledge of that site should be the H&S advisor. They should know all the risks and, before writing RAs or MSs, they should be the first port of call.

Of course, the problem is, if they aren’t onsite, then they don’t really know the risks and can’t really advise. A case in point, it’s interesting to me how often my rejected RAMS can be suddenly approved after a few minor changes, when I also ask the ‘Mark Donnelly‘ question, “what are the known risks on a site?” It suggests to me, they don’t really know.

Box-ticking/arse-saving can’t be the way we do H&S. People’s lives are at risk. H&S must be collaborative, with everyone focused on creating safer work environments.

Image by Ziaur Chowdhury from Pixabay