In June 2000 the Revitalising Health and Safety Strategy Statement(1) was launched, with a bold foreword by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott claiming that it would 'inject ... new impetus to better health and safety in all workplaces'. Prescott also expressed his belief that that 'the Revitalising Health and Safety initiative will bring about a real change in workplace culture - a change that will blaze a trail ... in all aspects of working life'.
Since I am not an advocate of the traditional health and safety practices, beliefs and philosophies that many still religiously adhere to, I took great interest in the document and the claims made. I particularly noted that corporate responsibility for health and safety should be clarified, that companies should publicly indicate which director holds responsibility for health and safety, and that health and safety should be covered in annual reports.
Safety practitioners want safety to be a boardroom issue instead of a bored room issue. I have long believed that practitioners need to challenge convention and cut a new niche by using a business risk management approach which sees health and safety as merely one of a number of risks that business faces and must manage. As yet, I have still to see any trails blazed.
It is almost four years since 'Revitalising' was unveiled, so surely it is time for the green leaves of progress to be showing. However, health and safety remains, in many cases, a bolt-on activity and a perceived legal obligation. I believe that the following key propositions accurately reflect the current status of our profession.
- PROPOSITION ONE - that traditional safety practitioners are probably the most risk averse people in the organisation. They have a continuing focus on legal compliance, which is often seen as adding cost to the business. Thus they are often at loggerheads with people who manage the business.
- PROPOSITION TWO - that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) continues to encourage a dependence on legal standards rather than adapt their thinking to be more in line with a risk management philosophy.
- PROPOSITION THREE - that phrases such as 'safety is our top priority' and the constant search for a 'safety culture' send the wrong messages.
- PROPOSITION FOUR - that the training given to health and safety practitioners equips them in the narrowest of ways, banishing them to a bolt-on role and not allowing them to play a truly influential part in the business environment.
- PROPOSITION FIVE - that the status of the health and safety professional was always low, remains low, and will continue to be low as long as they travel the route many seem to be set on.
It is time to make things happen. Safety has stood still for too long.
'Revitalising' was published more than 25 years after the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Its precursor was the Robens report, and it is interesting to see how that report referenced safety as a career.
It said: 'Although the Institution's efforts to promote wider recognition of the profession have made some progress, it has been to some extent hampered by controversy over whether there really is scope for a career profession of safety officer. We think that there is some substance in the argument that this work should not be seen too exclusively in terms of a narrowly specialised single-career profession. For our part we should like to see many more people in very senior management posts who have had the benefit of previous experience as safety officers and safety advisers.
There should be room for the man who seeks a career in management and who specialises for a period in occupational safety and health as an integral part of that career'. I think the report was talking about business risk managers.
Safety practitioners who have not yet embraced the issue of risk management are missing one of the best chances to progress. This is because managing risks - be they pure, like health and safety, or speculative like financial and commercial - is key. Business risk management is becoming accepted as a discipline that adds value, and is recognised as such in companies at the highest level.
More and more companies are now setting up robust systems of risk management so that they can identify, evaluate and control the risks that are specific to achievement of their objectives. In doing so, they are considering emerging risks, such as those arising from branding and reputation, as well as those in more traditional areas. And, because society now demands that companies back their claims, risk management is a tool to ensure they deliver.
Consequently, the concept of risk is changing. Risk is no longer seen as a bad thing; in fact, risk taking is an essential activity of a competitive company. So risk management will become increasingly recognised as an integral part of business and not as a mere regulatory exercise. For safety to advance, it has to move into that sphere and be part of the bigger risk management picture and not be confined to legal compliance. In many cases, safety is still not a boardroom issue; many practitioners are not truly influential at a senior level, and many are still battling, with limited success.
Setting a minimum standard?Perhaps we should go back to first principles. What is safety? Absence from harm tends to be the traditional view. However, I believe that 'harm' smacks of health and safety officer jargon, and prefer 'controlling business loss'.
We are all well versed in the 'so far as is reasonably practicable' approach.
But I think it is unfortunate that many practitioners have tried to advance safety by arguing from the law. That is a tired and ineffectual approach.
The law has stifled the true development of safety and has consequently inhibited the progress of safety practitioners in the business world.
Safety is not about compliance, and progressive practitioners are not employed to look after the legal ramifications of failure. Safety is about adding value, and I have no doubt that good safety management does that.
The big problem is whether this is perceived by key figures in the business environment. The answer is 'probably not' - hence the need for revitalisation.
Of course, the law is a starting point. If all companies complied, safety would be better. It would still not be good enough however, because the law develops on the back of failure. We injure and kill people, and subsequently introduce legislation, rather than being sufficiently risk aware to prevent failure in the first place. Indeed, legal prescription may actually increase risk rather than lower it. In their book Learning from Disasters(2), Toft and Reynolds quote from a report into a major fire: 'Some architects tend to rely on regulations and available guides, rather than on their own understanding of the principles, to design against fire risk'. I recall that the stand that burnt to the ground at Bradford City's football ground in 1985 was not considered safe, but it passed the necessary check that the law demanded at the time.
In another example, there was a report last year of the death of a delivery driver in a crash, believed to have been caused by his falling asleep at the wheel. His company owned 12 vehicles, and the one involved was the only one operating without a tachograph because the weight of the vehicle meant it did not legally require one. However, since the risk of fatigue remains the same regardless of vehicle size, it might be argued that blind legal compliance without consideration of the real risks played a significant part in this accident.
It might also be asked whether organisations really needed the Working Time Regulations to tell them that excessive hours lead to fatigue and increase the probability of error, accidents and subsequent financial loss. Similarly, did they need the Manual Handling Regulations to tell them that poor handling may cause injury, absence and negative impact on the core business?
Perhaps we ought to reflect on the comments of the governor of the Bank of England following the Barings Bank collapse. In Waring and Glendon's book, Managing Risk(3), he stated: 'I think that the collapse has done more durable good than all the efforts of the world's regulators laid end to end'.
Let there be no doubt: legal compliance is a minimum standard. Unfortunately, many practitioners use it as a yardstick, and effectively offer to achieve the minimum. This is despite the fact that company executives widely laud safety as their number one priority. Imagine a company's service director telling the board, "We are going to offer our customers the very minimum we can get away with". It would not be acceptable, and it should not be acceptable in safety either. The safety profession needs a new approach.
Integrated approachInterestingly, following the launch of 'Revitalising', a MORI poll of some of the UK's top 500 companies showed that senior executives were far more concerned with increasing profit and giving customer satisfaction than with the safety of their employees. Such a view contradicts the common company slogan that people are their most valuable asset, and that no compromise on health and safety will be made.
Health and safety is just one part of the bigger risk management picture; just one risk in the business risk management archipelago. To be truly effective and take the health and safety profession forward, safety must be integrated into an overall risk management approach.
There has to be new impetus and a new approach to make this happen, as Prescott stated in his foreword. Unfortunately, the draft version of the 'Ready Reckoner' born out of the 'Revitalising' document, suggests that nothing much has changed. An example, supposedly designed to drive home the business case, cites 'a worker in a small plastics manufacturer injured his foot when a set of shelves fell over'. In consultations prior to the publication of 'Revitalising', the question 'What is an accident?' was asked. The response was that accidents are not just things that hurt people or make them ill. Damaging your car or getting oil on your clothes are accidents too.
Thus, in effect, 'Revitalising', aimed at the most senior people in organisations, confirmed their view of the safety practitioner. It is someone who stops shelves falling over and prevents workers getting oil on their clothes, rather than someone dealing with the driving forces of today's business.
Such examples may explain why the safety role, as it stands at present, has a negative image and is not seen as a business benefit. Change is still desperately needed, but the Revitalising document will, unfortunately, not be the agent of change. According to the MORI poll, only 4% of senior executives said they knew something about 'Revitalising' and 63% knew nothing about it at all. The remainder probably sent it straight to the safety manager for action.
If safety is to move with the times, practitioners have to be skilled differently and change their approach. 'Revitalising' has produced some positive aspects, including a demand for professionals to receive education in risk management. And the growing move toward risk management gives safety an opportunity. But, I also believe, this means changing the face of safety. Safety practitioners, institutions and regulators all have a part to play. Managing risk is the way forward and it is time safety practitioners broadened their skills.
However, because safety enjoys the rhetoric but not the salience, there are likely to be more tragic events in the next few years. It is ironic and frustrating that many safety practitioners in the UK are still fighting to gain corporate acceptance, and that the Government, even after so many safety failures, found a need for a document called 'Revitalising'.
To effect change we need something more than revitalising. We need a complete review of safety from the very roots of the profession, directed by people who wish to advance safety rather than protect a position. Much more must be done if we are not to read a document entitled 'Revitalising Revitalising' in 15 or 20 years time.
(1) Health and Safety Commission and Department of Environment, Transport and Regions, Revitalising Health and Safety.
(2) Learning from Disasters, Toft, B and Reynolds, S (1999) Leicester: Perpetuity Press
(3) Managing Risk, Waring, A and Glendon, I (2000) London: International Thomson Business Press
HSE TARGETSThe Revitalising Health and Safety strategy was launched jointly by the Government and Health and Safety Commission on 7 June 2000. The HSE says that this 10 year strategy seeks significant improvements in workplace health and safety by setting, for the first time, challenging targets aimed at reducing the incidence of work-related ill-health, the number of fatal and major injuries, and working days lost caused by injuries and ill health. It summarises the strategy's aims as:
- to inject new impetus into the health and safety agenda
- to identify new ways of further reducing rates of accidents and ill health caused by work, especially in respect of small firms
- to ensure that the approach to health and safety regulation remains relevant for the changing world of work over the next 25 years
- to gain maximum benefit from links between occupational health and safety and other government programmes.
Targets include cutting deaths and major injury accidents by 10% by 2010, reducing the rate of work related ill-health by 20% by 2010, cutting working days lost due to health and safety failure by 30% by 2010, and achieving half of the improvement by 2004.