How to set strategic priorities for health and safety
Enforcing health and safety in the workplace is a legal and moral obligation for employers, but how can corporate decision-making drive a strategic, risk management approach that protects employees?
The industrial revolution started the drive towards health and safety governance policy for modern businesses, with the responsibility for employee welfare fast becoming a strategic priority.
Today, health and safety policies are more detailed, more strategic and, crucially, part of the overall risk mitigation and environmental, social and governance (ESG) plan for many companies.
Commitment from the top
Andy Gibbins, regional director for PetroSkills, which trains oil and gas operators in health and safety policy-making and implementation, says there are two dimensions to creating robust health and safety governance policies – complying with legislation that has tightened considerably since the industrial revolution, and having a clear understanding of the moral responsibility to take care of employees. He adds that both these aspects need to be implemented with the full commitment of the organisation’s leadership.
“Relatively strong legislation exists pretty much globally, but the extent of supervision and enforcement varies hugely from country to country,” Gibbins explains. “Complying with legislation requires knowledge of what is applicable and the organisational capability to comply.”
Understanding the moral responsibility means “having a real commitment from senior leadership and from leaders and staff throughout the organisation – and requires a policy framework that facilitates identification of key issues and development of practices to ensure wellbeing, which in good organisations goes well beyond compliance,” he adds.
Industries setting an example
Energy and construction are two industries where workplace accidents have made headlines worldwide. In 2010, for example, the explosion and fire on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 crew members and injured 17 people, spilling oil and natural gas into the water for 87 days.
An investigation and reviews of regulatory failures that led to the disaster resulted in regulatory reforms and new safety and environmental requirements in the US. However, companies have a role to play to lead the way and set high standards, alongside government interventions.
Companies can take a strategic approach to managing health, safety and environmental risks, and implement an overarching safety culture as part of its corporate governance and ESG responsibilities – the aim is to create workplaces where employees stay safe, without a major disaster being the catalyst for change.
“Most importantly, health and safety needs to be a real priority and not just a priority in some vague statement developed to tick a box,” says Gibbins. “If the organisation, at all levels, really wants to be a leader in health, safety and environment, it will make it happen.”
Terry Dussault, President, Yellowknife Safety, a construction safety consulting company, agrees. “The construction and energy sectors,” he says, “are known for their high-risk environments, making setting strategic health and safety priorities crucial.”
As a starting point for setting strategic health and safety priorities, Dussault advises organisations, especially in high-risk industries, to conduct a thorough risk assessment “to identify the most significant risks and develop and prioritise action plans to address them.”
The main risks in construction, he says, are falls from heights and exposure to hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead, while in the energy sector, major risks include radiation exposure, fires and explosions.
Industries can benefit from a behavioural safety approach, as well as by taking action after a comprehensive risk assessment. For Galliford Try, a UK construction company, its behavioural safety approach, a programme called Challenging Beliefs, Affecting Behaviour (CBAB), has been in place since 2012, driving the safety culture of the whole organisation. All employees receive coaching to ensure safety is prioritised on all projects, and the programme has been refreshed to include a mobile app so that employees can access information wherever they are.
CBAB’s lead indicators cover leadership, communication, competence, culture, contractors and planning, with management engagement on worksites a key component. This includes management taking safety tours of all sites to promote and maintain safe behaviours and engaging with employees to identify and correct any poor practices. The number of safety tours increased from 755 in 2021 to 1,114 in 2022, and the accident frequency rate dropped from 0.8 per 100,00 hours worked to 0.6 in the same timeframe.
“Our objective remains to create and maintain an environment where care for our people, and those who work with us, is our top priority, and the belief that all accidents are preventable prevails,” says Mike Webb, the company’s health, safety and environment director.
“We believe that CBAB is a leading programme within the industry and we are constantly vigilant that it remains that way.”
Outside of construction and energy, Halfords Logistics has taken a corporate governance/risk mitigation approach with demonstrable results, winning the company the Best New Entry award at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents 2022 Health and Safety Awards.
Mike Gray, general manager for Halfords logistics, says the health and safety team has rated each operational activity as red, amber or green, with each activity being individually risk-assessed and suitable control measures communicated through the whole company via a safe operating procedures document.
“This document is reviewed in line with risk assessments and after an incident [and] compliance with control measures is measured through the safety and fire log and an internal audit programme,’ Gray explains.
The impact of the great resignation on health and safety policy
As workers reconsider their work-life balance and careers, often taking their skills with them, companies must take note of the impact on health and safety
The Covid-19 pandemic moved health and safety to the top of the corporate governance agenda for businesses worldwide. Protecting employees from becoming infected with, and transmitting, a highly contagious virus became the top priority for companies from a health and safety standpoint, as well as a business and operational perspective.
Three years on from the first lockdowns, one of the major human resources trends to come out of the pandemic is the great resignation. This was triggered by a range of factors, including an uptick in recruitment when economies reopened.
A 2022 LinkedIn poll by Hays Recruitment found that of 25,002 respondents, 74% were questioning their job and career choices. For some people, resigning was motivated by the desire to work for a company where they felt they would have greater job satisfaction or better work/life balance, even if it meant a reduction in pay, while for others, the motivation was to work for themselves instead.
For many companies, the impact of a vastly changed workforce has far-reaching implications, regardless of the industry. As well as the financial impact of recruiting and training new employees to quickly replace the loss of experience and expertise, the often dramatic change in the workforce affects health and safety policies.
“As workers leave their jobs, organisations may struggle to maintain their existing health and safety programmes, particularly if they are already understaffed – this could lead to increased risks and the potential for accidents and injuries,” says Terry Dussault, President, Yellowknife Safety.
Andy Gibbins, regional director for PetroSkills, which trains oil and gas operators in health and safety policy-making and implementation, says the loss of experience, particularly among employees with expertise in health and safety, “has created a major need for upskilling and competency development to be able to cope with all priorities.”
One of the effects of the pandemic on maintaining health and safety competencies was that many organisations undertook “very limited skills development activity for two-and-a-half years, creating major competency gaps, which urgently need to be addressed,” Gibbins adds.
However, Dussault says the great resignation can be an opportunity to re-evaluate and improve health and safety policies as part of a broader recruitment strategy. He cites the example of California-based Pride Construction Engineering Services, which is “offering a robust health and safety programme as a significant selling point,” as they compete to attract and retain people.
“It differentiates them from their competitors by creating a safer and healthier workplace,” Dussault says.
For sectors where it is frequently difficult to recruit sufficient staff, such as healthcare, the great resignation is just another hurdle to overcome, along with ongoing challenges, such as labour shortages, wage pressures and the risk of abuse at work. For Practice Plus Group, a large independent healthcare provider in the UK, workforce health and safety policies have become more strategic and holistic to attract and retain staff.
“After an incredibly challenging few years delivering healthcare throughout the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to take care of our workforce’s wellbeing,” says Andy Pollard, the company’s head of health, safety and environment. This includes the introduction of an employee assistance programme, wellbeing champions at every site, and counselling.
“One increasingly common risk in healthcare health and safety is, unfortunately, violence and aggression towards our staff from patients and sometimes their relatives, and this has become more prevalent since the pandemic,” says Pollard.
This disturbing trend, which has also affected workers in retail, has added to recruitment issues in the healthcare sector, along with any effects of the great resignation. For Pollard, this has led to a shift in policy: “A priority area of focus for us now – and as we look to the future – is minimising violence and aggression towards our staff and the associated impact of this.”
The CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing at Work 2022 survey cautions against complacency in strategic health and safety policy across all industries. The survey found “a small but disappointing slip in attention to employees’ mental and physical health” compared to the 2021 results – 70% of HR respondents agree that employee wellbeing is on the agenda of senior leaders, down from 75% in 2021, and 60% said line managers have bought into the importance of wellbeing, down from 67%.
As employers seek to mitigate the impact of the great resignation, the CIPD found that 51% of organisations are taking a strategic approach to health and safety – and these are the organisations that are more likely to report positive outcomes, such as reduced absences, better staff retention and improved productivity.
The workplace: a matter of life and death
The number of serious injuries and fatalities that occur at work are influenced by a company's attitude towards health and safety
Raising standards in health and safety
Good health and safety standards are increasingly important in business. But maintaining them across a global supply chain requires robust systems and processes, says ISN, a leading provider of contractor and supplier information management tools
Health and safety has always been a critical issue for market-leading companies, particularly when they rely on large networks of global subcontractors. Not only do serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) threaten and alter the lives of those affected, but they create considerable reputational and regulatory risks for hiring organisations.
Ensuring that subcontractors uphold high standards can be challenging, especially when they are smaller businesses that may lack best-in-class reporting systems. As a large amount of work continues to be outsourced in industries such as construction, oil and gas, and manufacturing, it is vital that hiring clients have robust processes in place to manage and mitigate risk.
ISN has been working for over 20 years to help its partners prevent and eliminate SIFs. As a leading provider of contractor and supplier information management systems, ISN helps hiring organisations in more than 85 countries to monitor, manage and benchmark contractors against their peers and raise standards.
Communication is key
Rick Dorsett, a senior director overseeing ISN’s health, safety, environmental and sustainability review team, says staying on top of health and safety standards across a large supply chain takes a lot of work.
“Regulations are becoming more stringent around the world and they change rapidly,” he says. “Hiring organisations must keep up and clearly communicate their expectations to subcontractors, creating a feedback loop of continual improvement. It is vital to have the right system in place.”
The pressure to raise standards is immense. There has been a disproportionately slow decline in SIFs in recent years when compared to other, less serious incidents.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5,333 lives were lost in the US as a result of work-related injuries in 2019, the highest number since 2007. And, a worker died every 101 minutes from a work-related injury in 2021.
Adding to this, the pandemic has further raised the bar in terms of health and safety standards, forcing organisations to factor unforeseen events and threats into their planning.
Fortunately a growing body of evidence is available to help businesses understand where to focus their efforts. For instance, ISN works with 700 hiring clients internationally, and more than 75,000 active subcontractors and suppliers – a network it can leverage to develop and share best practices.
In 2021, ISN analysed over 60,000 recordable health and safety incidents in the US with its machine learning model. It found that the leading cause of SIFs in the preceding three years was contact with an object or equipment, followed by falls, slips or trips.
Another finding was that the number of SIFs were higher during July and August – possibly because extended daylight hours permitted longer working hours, potentially resulting in fatigue among workers.
And, 42% of all SIFs in 2020 occurred among contractors who reported performing construction work, followed by those performing administrative support, waste management and remediation work (29% of SIFs).
With ISN’s data-driven solutions, hiring organisations can collect and analyse large amounts of rich health and safety data on existing and prospective partners. ISN’s machine learning technology can then provide organisations with early warning signs of potential and actual SIFs, helping them proactively mitigate risk before an incident occurs.
Jenny Buckley is senior vice president at ISN, leading its customer service, review and verification team, as well as its Monarch consulting team. She points out that hiring organisations can use ISN’s RAVS Plus Implementation Assessment service to gain a clearer picture of how their partners implement their health and safety education (HSE) programmes and policies in practice. In this process, ISN’s HSE professionals work with management at the contractor company to identify gaps in training or policies and assign corrective actions.
Workers – a rich source of intelligence
In addition, hiring clients can use ISN’s CultureSight tool to gather perceptions from partners and workers about the strengths and weaknesses of the hiring clients own health and safety processes and safety culture.
“Your workers and subcontractors are a rich source of intelligence,” Buckley says. “They can tell you how likely they perceive a SIF will occur in the next 12 months, why, and what should be done. Our Monarch consulting team can also collect direct feedback resulting in a detailed picture of the perceived strengths and flaws of your organisation.”
Workplace injuries can have a devastating impact on those involved, while also eroding trust in a company’s systems and processes. It is not enough to only collect and report on recordable incidents – hiring clients also need to analyse that data to drive a process of continual improvement across their supply chain.
Five ways to improve health and safety policy for better governance
Engaging workers and fostering a culture of health and safety are vital for strong governance
Ineffective health and safety control measures have led to some high-profile prosecutions recently, including a leading confectionery manufacturer being fined for workers sustaining injuries. The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive concluded that the company had failed to properly review the safety of its machinery.
“Such prosecutions show that companies are simply not learning lessons from past enforcement actions,” says Ridwaan Omar, a partner, and head of regulatory at Forbes Solicitors.
Companies should be taking lessons from accidents and investigations and updating their health and safety policies accordingly, so that the same mistakes aren’t made in the future, stresses Omar.
Not only this, but companies need to effectively communicate any changes with all workers through training.
UK law states that any company with more than five employees has to display a health and safety document where all workers can read it.
When it comes to making sure that workers are adhering to health and safety measures, though, companies should consider making it a requirement that their training is interactive and immersive.
“By creating virtual and multi-sensory environments and using gamification, you can make training more engaging and measurable,” argues Omar.
There’s evidence to suggest that companies whose workers are more engaged are less likely to have health and safety failures. A Gallup survey found that higher engagement results in 70% fewer workplace accidents.
Many workers have returned to the office over the past year or so, yet others are still working from home some, or all, of the time. Remote workers may be out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind. Policies shouldn’t exclude them.
Ryan Exley is a health and safety specialist at professional body the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. He underlines the importance of employers being able to identify poor wellbeing in those workers not in the office.
“One-on-one meetings are vital for remote workers and can enable managers to spot these signs,” says Exley, adding that companies need to keep a record of their technology and equipment, including chairs and lighting.
With in-person display screen equipment tests not possible, Exley recommends companies manage this by supplying workers with checklists and asking them to send in photo and video evidence. They can then receive guidance and feedback in line with policies.
It’s vital that policies look beyond risks to physical health and cover mental health as well, says Exley.
Omar agrees and advises that companies engage with industry bodies to understand the concerns members are reporting – and then use this information to inform reviews of their workers’ mental health.
“Workers can benefit from having coaching sessions with a professional who isn’t part of day-to-day teams,” says Omar. “They’re more likely to be honest with someone who they perceive as having less of a vested interest in their daily performance.”
By taking this approach, companies can better identify mental health risks and draw up practical solutions to address them.
While policies require clear standards, programmes and training to be effective, companies can only truly get on top of governance by embedding safety into the culture of their organisation.
“Companies need to foster an environment where employees are empowered to identify and address risks themselves and are encouraged to share best practices,” says Nigel Summers, director for environment, health and safety at packaging producer Amcor Flexibles EMEA.
When workers are supported to take ownership of health and safety – and not just play a passive role – policies are more likely to be complied with.
Summers surmises: “Once a strong safety culture has been embedded and employees have been engaged, there can be a shift from reactive risk management to proactive risk mitigation.”