The last twelve months have seen some disturbing prosecutions for Health and Safety offences, resulting in some spectacular fines. HSE carries out its own statistical analysis on these cases and it is worth looking at the trends they identify. Even without this in-depth analysis, there are some trends that catch the eye.
Fatal accidents often attract the most attention for good reason, but serious injuries can be life-changing and the victims do not always make anything like a full recovery, leaving them with damaged lives. Courts take these factors into account when sentencing, but they also consider the size of the company and its financial situation, factors which do not always sit well with the public.
Among the employers facing the most severe sentences can be found both large and small companies.
Something which often attracts comment from judges and inspectors in these cases is the failure to follow a safe system of work as one of, if not the, prime reason for things going so badly wrong. It seems that this failure to follow a safe system of work happens for one of two reasons: the complete absence of a written safe system of work in any form, or, frighteningly often, the failure to follow the system even though it existed.
Although the reasons behind these failures are sometimes very complex, they can mostly be summed up as, firstly, a lack of understanding of the nature of the task or how to manage it, secondly, a wilful disregard for responsibility of managers or operatives, or thirdly, a failure to communicate clearly and effectively. The second of these seems to be the most inexcusable, and the prison sentence on conviction of a company director for two site fatalities would suggest the Courts take this view.
Following this train of culpability, it could be argued that managers and directors should make it their business to get up to speed with their responsibilities and to obtain competent advice where needed, thus making this failure in competence the next least excusable. This would seem to leave poor communication as the failing where there are potentially the most mitigating factors.
Poor environmental conditions, physical limitations of individuals, and technical malfunctions all play their part in such failures, but it is often said that communication is a two-way process. However trite this may sound, there is some truth in it, and it may be worth considering how we both send and acknowledge communications, because in safety-critical situations, the acknowledgement is as important as the message. Anyone who has ever done a bit of rock-climbing, which most people would agree, is a safety-critical activity, will know about Climbers’ calls. Whether it’s in a noisy gym, or on the Eiger Nordwand in a storm, it is essential that the climbing partners know exactly what each other is doing. Calls such as “climb when you’re ready”, followed by, “ climbing!”, are short and unambiguous.
Hopefully, it would be rare for workers and supervisors to be operating under these conditions, but nonetheless, a formalised system in which documents could be requested, provided, and receipt acknowledged would most likely have prevented some of the accidents over the last year. As always, the trick is to provide a system which communicates clearly, can be updated and modified easily (by appropriate persons), can provide an audit trail, and all without creating extra paperwork and bureaucracy. Quite a challenge, but then there’s quite a prize for getting it right.