It’s in every area of the factory and yet nowhere in particular: a procurement category on which a site will spend the least, but one that can end up costing the most. Even Bilbo Baggins would be scratching his head at the riddle of creating the ideal health and safety kit purchasing strategy.

“A purchasing policy should be about getting the best deal, but ensuring the kit you buy is safe,” advises HSE policy lead and former inspector, Pete Lennon on a category that ranges from ear plugs to infrared forklift truck: pedestrian collision avoidance systems and everything in-between. “If people are going to cut costs and buy equipment that they’re not sure about then the end result could be potential injuries.”

From then on, the costs can become exponential warns Lennon. “The cost that would be imposed in a Magistrates or Crown Court may appear high [an average of around £25,000 in HSE prosecutions bought in 2014). But, the greater cost is the insurance costs paid through your insurance broker and the reputational costs, which can be incredibly high...people will say I don’t want to get my stuff from company X because of an incident.”

That fear factor has many reaching for the cheque book in a mistaken belief they can spend themselves safe. Yet, the model procurement process actually begins by examining whether you really need to buy at all according to safety experts.

“It is important to have a strategy based on risk management: if you can eliminate a risk, then you should,” says Pamela Brown, head of health, safety and environment at the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). Brown recommends using the hierarchy of protective measures (see right) as a start point. “What you shouldn’t do is think: ‘oh, I’ll go andjust buy some PPE’. You should be thinking: ‘can I remove the hazard completely?’”

Let’s take a fictional case study to illustrate the point. Acme Chemicals Inc is manually mixing hazardous chemicals on the line. Health and safety nirvana for Acme might involve eliminating the toxic substances altogether or bringing in an army of burn resistant resistant robots instead.However, in reality Acme has some unforgiving shareholders and a limited capex budget.

So, following our hierarchy model (see right), we look next at physical guarding and engineering controls. Our counter measures might include a new product formula that involves less acrid ingredients or investing in, more-affordable, programmable dosing units. We could also reduce the exposure of our employees to the original compound by speeding up job rotation.

Common sense is as good as formula as any on the path to smarter safety kit procurement. But be warned, says Nick Marshall, divisional director at safety equipment supplier, Arco, substituting one process can inadvertently affect another. “Sometimes people try to over-regulate and put a lot of processes in place where it makes it very hard for people to do their jobs,” he explains. “If it’s not a practical solution then people will fight against it, take shortcuts and that’s where you get safety issues.”

The defeating of machine guards is a case in point. The HSE’s website pages are littered with sad tales of severed fingers and smashed bones as employees shortcut the safety systems meant to protect them just to save a few seconds. It can be avoided by applying to one of the most important habits of effective safety equipment buying: involving your people in purchasing.

“I think it’s fundamental, “says Karen McDonnell spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “It might mean taking a little bit longer for you to get to the endpoint. But by engaging your people and helping them understand, it will give you the best chance, as a business, of going beyond just a compliance based safety culture. It’s like anything else, if people are involved in the process, they’re much more likely to engage.”

Suppliers are eager to help facilitate shopfloor trials of new safety equipment. Arco, for example, will offer free access to a technical expert, plus sample packs of kit and tools for gathering your employee’s feedback.“You find from that PPE is one of the most emotive subjects a client encounters,” explains Marshall of Arco. “We find in large contracts, even though the PPE is probably one of that procurement team’s lowest spend compared to other categories, it causes them the most noise. If they try to strip out cost and put some inferior product in then people know and start to kick against the system.”

Don’t risk a revolution on C shift over the prospect of saving a few pennies. With PPE - select on quality, comfort, style and performance advises Marshall. Exemplar sites are the ones who employ their operators as the Egon Ronay of equipment reviews, he adds. “It all comes down to how well you communicate with people about what the trail is looking to achieve,” he says of the ideal purchasing strategy. “Undergoing those trials and then making that user feedback available across the product ranges you selected. Explaining that these are the products we’re going to go with, these are the reasons why? Communication, communication, communication.”

The same basic principles ring true when procuring machinery or materials handling kit. Engage with suppliers and make the process a two-way conversation with your people. The HSE has some great conversation starters like the slips and trips mapping tool that tasks your operators with unleashing their inner Picasso by sketching out work areas, accident hotspots and possible counter measures.

Cynics might see such collaborative exercises as frivolous and prefer to bulk buy slip-resistant safety boots from the PPE catalogue instead. But, adopt such a transactional approach to your workforce’s wellbeing and don’t be surprised if those bulk order boots don’t make it out of the box.

Lennon of HSE concludes: “Companies wouldn’t bring in new employee policies without consulting with their HR. Why would you bring in new safety kit without talking to the workforce? The people that understand how things work on the shopfloor are the workers. You need to include the workforce because a happy, healthy, safe workforce is one that’s going to be more productive.