'Skills fade' risks diminishing health & safety

3 mins read

Ben Haughton, technical director at Arco Professional Safety Services, says skills fade may lead to increased risks to health and safety in high risk industries

Everyone has a fundamental human right to go to work each day and come home to their loved ones safely. Nonetheless, statistics show that in the last year the Construction Industry was hardest hit by fatal injuries (40), followed by Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing (20) and Manufacturing (15)1. This in a year of normal work activity.

Ben Haughton, technical director at Arco Professional Safety Services, speaks out about the escalating dangers industries may face as businesses deal with the ongoing fall-out of COVID-19.

Which industries are in danger of becoming more susceptible to workplace risks?

Between April and June this year alone, over 32 million working days were lost to COVID-19 related absences2. In addition, redundancies and fluctuating guidelines have made it increasingly difficult for organisations to provide their workers with training. Movement restrictions, company policies and lockdown have all contributed to a reduction of training over the summer months.

Businesses are doing their best to catch up but with the threat of a second wave and tighter restrictions coming into force, it is hard to see how they will keep up with training requirements. Reduced training and a reduction in task based activity (those who have extended time in furlough) will result in skills fade. The possible consequences of this in the high risk industries of confined spaces and working at height are plain. If we are to maintain skill levels in industry, we need to look at other ways of achieving it.

How can businesses manage rising threats to safety?

Alongside contingency plans and ‘back to work’ responses, health and safety training must be boosted to ensure that a restructured workforce can cope with high-risk environments and inevitable skill gaps that can occur.

It’s vital that this training provides workers with the right balance of knowledge and practical skills to be able to deliver their work safely. It is all too tempting for companies to provide their workers with theory only training when social distancing and movement restrictions are in place however the shortfall in practical skills could have severe consequences.

This is not to say that there is no place for training in the virtual world, there is a balance to be struck where it is safe to do so. The workforce needs the confidence to manage their day-to-day tasks safely but also not to be exposed to the increasing risk of contracting COVID-19 by receiving training in the normal classroom setting. We’ve launched several video conference courses and we are developing VR tools to help organisations keep its workforce safe whilst also maintaining the recommended social distances during COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 impacted training centres?

We understand that managing health and safety risks can be complicated, time-consuming and demand a level of technical expertise – and resources – that businesses may not have internally. COVID-19 shouldn’t stop organisations reaching out for help, equally it doesn’t mean that training should stop. Providing practical skills is essential in high-risk industries and so we have adapted our centres to provide attendees with a safe learning environment and the reassurance they need to join critical training programmes.

We’ve introduced new precautions at all our training centres, such as pre-start COVID questionnaires, non-contact body temperature checks, staggered break times to minimise unnecessary people movement and mixing and the use of larger rooms equipped with enclosure screens to ensure adequate social distancing. Where the physical element is indispensable, in height rescue training, for example, we can still find ways to cut proximity and limit the time spent in close contact with trainers.

As a result of the pandemic has there been anything you’ve had to do differently?

There has been a stark increase in demand for all types of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers and all first line Covid-19 responders, with a particular focus on Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE). Working with this equipment requires face fit testing and for many, this will be a new procedure, but a critical one, as research has found mask protection can significantly improve with fit-testing and one-to-one training on mask use, providing all correct procedures have been adhered to.3

In normal circumstances our national network of face fit test providers can deliver testing at an organisation's site, dramatically reducing the amount of employee down time. However, during the current situation, our team has also been focussed on supporting the NHS, first line responders and other key workers, providing face fit testing, whilst adhering to social distancing and the revised HSE guidelines for providing this service.

We conduct two forms of face fit testing, qualitative and quantitative, both provide an indication on whether a fit has been achieved, the quantitative test being the more sensitive of the two tests. Matching an individual’s face shape with a compatible mask andteaching wearers how to ensure a tight seal is achieved is significantly helping to protect frontline workers during this period. We are also looking to utilise some of our 44 retail stores as drop-in clinics to support care workers, dentists, ambulance crews etc with face-fit testing.

For further information, visit https://www.arcoservices.co.uk/

1 https://www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/resources/fatal.htm

3 https://associationofanaesthetists-publications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/anae.15261