Safety is your business

7 mins read

With new and tougher penalties, the health and safety buck now stops even more firmly in the boardroom. Annie Gregory asks what directors are doing to make sure their workforce stays safe … and they themselves stay out of prison

The Health and Safety Offences Act 2008 came into force this January. It introduces much stiffer penalties, including prison for company directors, and it also gives much wider sentencing powers to both upper and lower courts. Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is not mincing her words: "It is right that there should be a real deterrent to those businesses and individuals that do not take their health and safety responsibilities seriously. Everyone has the right to work in an environment where risks to their health and safety re properly managed, and employers have a duty in law to deliver this." Although she maintains that those who manage health and safety (H&S) well have nothing to fear – there are no new duties nor is HSE changing its approach to enforcement...– she also says: "We will continue to target those who knowinglyÊcut corners, put lives at risk and who gain commercial advantage over competitors by failing to comply with the law." So is this causing panic in the boardroom? Not according to Ruth Armstrong, partner at law firm HBJ Gateley Wareing and an H&S specialist: "People are pulling their socks up but not as a result of the Act – it is because of the slow drip drip of larger fines from prosecutions over the last five to six years." Significantly, however, she sees far more signs of H&S involvement at the very top of companies. "When you see directors leading, everybody else follows. Until you get proper leadership, it will be seen as the thing we have got to do rather than the thing we want to do." She compares the current situation to that of quality standards 20 years ago: "As soon as businesses started to see the relationship between that and profit, they managed reward accordingly." Today, companies are actually measuring H&S performance and linking it to promotion prospects: "As soon as you get that, it begins to have an impact throughout the organisation." Her perceptions are borne out by EEF's 2008 H&S survey which shows directors in over 80% of companies are actively involved in managing H&S. In the last three years, there has been a 40% rise in the number of company boards monitoring health and safety management as part of their key performance indicators. EEF is using these findings to urge HSE to resist pressures for any new legal duties on company directors. It believes with member companies taking their responsibilities seriously, more regulation is simply unnecessary. "The law already allows directors or managers to be held to account if their personal actions put someone at risk," explains Steve Pointer, EEF's head of H&S policy. "Adding specific requirements such as the appointment of a single director to be charged with managing H&S could only be counter-productive. It would send a message that fellow directors can forget all about it." Armstrong does not share the same rosy picture: "Boards are not trained in seeing the dangers of complacency." They are rarely challenged about their H&S or compelled to look – as her firm does – from a risk point of view. The situation is even more pronounced among smaller businesses: "Where profit is tight, these are the ones most likely to be involved in a fatality and less likely to have proper systems in place. And what they can buy off the shelf from H&S consultancies tends to be expensive, generic and not a good fit for the organisation. Unless you have got someone pretty switched on, no-one changes the generic into the bespoke because they don't have the time or the understanding to do it." She points out that although ignorance is no defence in law, businesses are given little information about dealing with the mass of regulations. BERR reports that almost half of all businesses and some 75% of SMEs spend at least £1.4 billion per year on buying external advice on legal requirements. To alleviate the burden, it has just announced it will pilot a telephone advice service on H&S and employment legislation. The advice will be backed by insurance so businesses won't be caught by disclaimers. As, however, with so many recent government announcements, this one is extremely light on detail. Information chain So, in the (hopefully temporary) absence of firmer guidance from above, let's take a look at what senior level involvement means in practice. In truth, even total commitment won't work if it simply boils down to hammering procedures and safety routines into people. People will genuinely become engaged only when they see what they do is noticed and valued. Information has to move up the food chain as well as down. It can be a very simple process, like the one now in place at Severfield-Rowan Group's steel fabrication plants. To combat hand-arm vibration (HAV) syndrome, the group worked with Reactec, using its HAVmeters, to measure tool use and individual exposure levels, and to collect the data. At a basic level, it's a sensible technical solution to an established problem. But weekly exposure of each operator is also reported to the board and data is being used not just to ensure employees are protected but to design out potentially damaging processes. At a more complex level, there's no better place to look than pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck Sharp & Dohme's (MSD) Cramlington plant, winner of the 2008 Best Factory Award for health and safety. In 2002, it had three lost-time incidents. It was enough, well in advance of any legislative big stick, to make the (then) plant manager decide on fundamental change. Instead of the site safety professional being the technical expert, he would become the change agent for developing an open, safety-focused culture across the whole plant. The arrival of Martin Inskip as senior director of operations accelerated the process. It allowed the H&S initiative to 'piggy-back' on the attitude changes Inskip was bringing about through an extensive lean programme: "It was fundamental to everything we have managed to achieve," explains Mark Boldy, safety and environment manager. The management team showed its active commitment: since then, safety has been the first item on every meeting agenda, not as lip service but as the yardstick by which all potential actions are measured. "We ensured that whenever anything got reported, we took immediate action," recalls Boldy. "And we had the courtesy to say thank you. It's amazing how simple things like that can engender a more open culture." At the same time, MSD reviewed its H&S metrics: "We always used standard ones like lost-time injuries and lost-time day rate but they are measures of failure, not success," explains Boldy. Inskip asked him to come up with something that marked progress and "told us the state of the nation in one number". It wasn't easy; the site is already metric-heavy and the team wanted to produce one that was easily understandable and relates to working life. "We wanted to take advantage of things we already measured to encourage the right behaviour, so lost time and recordable injuries are still important but we also wanted to capitalise on near-miss reporting. We believe it is fundamental to changing culture." So overall safety performance is judged by a lost-time index that encompasses every departure from safe operation, however trivial. To hammer home the importance of events that might not even figure in many companies' calculations, it sums up the results around the plant as Ôhours worked without lost time,' graphically represented by the red/amber/green of a traffic light. The safety team looks at all accident and near-miss reports monthly and weights them for severity and frequency. "I played around with this for days – there was no model to work to," recalls Boldy. "But we trialled it and it worked well." Red means immediate action; amber means "we are taking our eyes off the ball and the management team needs to decide what has gone wrong and where we need to concentrate". Cramlington's constant drive for leaner operations has meant many changes: "This can have a detrimental effect on safety if you don't keep people's focus. All our efforts in safety culture are to bring to the forefront of people's minds the things they already know at the back." Right balance Boldy is clear there has to be a sensible balance struck between safety and productivity: "You cannot have the first pre-eminent over the second because you kill the business. If you put productivity before safety you kill people. We try to achieve balance by making sure people think before they act. Of all our principles, this is the most important." Boldy and Inskip agree that productivity initiatives like 5S and kaizen work hand in glove with H&S focus. For instance, an error risk reduction programme stopped silly mistakes in both areas. "If you can make safety integral to the other things you are doing and have an incremental effect, that's the way to get it embedded in the culture," maintains Inskip. The safety staff used to join kaizen events but, with safety now firmly embedded in the company culture, it's no longer necessary. "Our aim is to make ourselves redundant," says Boldy. "We are there as an advisory group, as change agents and to maintain and monitor the status of the safety programmes." Most manufacturing sites find it difficult to persuade people to point out mistakes; the culture of cover-up is endemic. "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," says Inskip. "Many major safety failures – Herald of Free Enterprise, Challenger – happen because people couldn't speak up. We want to hear the near-misses. When we started they were around 60% relative to accidents. Now they are in the high 70s and going up and I am very happy when they are trivial." Cramlington went the extra mile to convince people that reporting near-misses would never incur blame. It actually gives rewards for the best one. Inskip recalls one given to an operator who recognised, during an unusual clean-down, that a spring-loaded valve under tension could shoot out and hurt someone if it was taken apart. He stopped the clean-down and called the engineers. Inskip feels this illustrates the sense of responsibility and empowerment that sets Cramlington apart from other sites: "It was handled peer to peer without any supervision, from operator to technician. And, in telling the whole site that this person did a good job, we clearly showed that this is the kind of behaviour we want and respect." Importantly, however, the story doesn't stop there. The defined method of handling this operation will now be written into a specific manual for that area or incorporated into SOPs (standard operating procedures). "There are always things that crop up and surprise us," says Inskip. "But closing the loop is part of our leading edge in safety. There is no point in having a lot of people reporting if we don't use the information fully." MSD's final site safety score is calculated not just on the volume of accidents and near-misses but on the time taken to report and investigate them and implement preventive measures. Safety actions are owned by management and are tracked to closure. As a result, Cramlington's site safety metrics have shown a clear, year-on-year improvement, even against this harshest possible interpretation. In 2006, three months were classified as 'poor'; a year later it was down to only one month. It takes just one serious incident to send the score rocketing. It's a deliberately granular method of reporting that concentrates everybody's mind. Inskip admits there are drawbacks to deliberately rating the site severely – not least, the impression it could give at corporate level – but "you'll never propel yourself forward by patting yourself on the back". Is there a temptation to do otherwise? "Both Martin and I have to sleep at night," exclaims Boldy. "Our primary goal is to make sure that the people who come onto this site leave in the same state."