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Colborn’s Corner: Leading staff to their deaths?


Quentin Colborn

A rise in deaths in the construction industry must force the government into reversing policies of cutting safety inspectors and inspections, a coalition of trade unions has insisted. Should we be paying more attention to health and safety or are we just trying to wrap staff in cotton wool?

I address this topic with a sense of trepidation in recognition of the fact that I do not necessarily feel sufficiently aware of health and safety issues, except on the basis of common sense. And in many ways common sense has a lot going for it. I also have had the experience of closely watching events on a construction site recently which has given me an insight into the approaches to health and safety taken by both workers and the management team.

When we look at health and safety matters, the key objectives of legislation and policies are to protect workers from unsafe working practices established by employers and also to protect workers from themselves. Increasingly, of course, health and safety measures are taken to protect employers and other bodies from personal injury claims. It is in this latter situation that common sense seems to fly out of the window. We have all seen examples of what many will see as health and safety being taken to extremes, such as trees being chopped down to prevent conkers falling on heads, but what of the serious issues where lives really are at risk?

Clearly there needs to be safe working practices in place that reflects the risks within a particular industry. However, having a policy and working guidelines are often not enough. There should be a consistent approach to applying whatever policies are in place. Also the rules need to be reasonable in relation to the risks and not just a knee-jerk reaction to the need to protect against all eventualities. Take the example of hard hats on construction sites. Go to virtually any site and you will see a sign reading ‘This is a hard hat site’, yet inside are often plenty of people with no hard hat in sight. So is this wrong? Against the law possibly, but in many cases wearing a hard hat is of no relevance and may even lead to unsafe practices themselves.

While there are undoubtedly unsafe working practices around, are increased safety inspections the best way of addressing the issue? My view is that in the majority of cases the answer is no, but clearly something else does need to be done. I would encourage more employees to report serious breaches of safe working practices, in that way HSE visits may be more targeted and address real issues rather than technical ones. There will no doubt be concerns that flow from this, both from the perspective of employers and employees.

From an employer’s perspective there will be the fear that spurious allegations will be made either from current or previous employees who have an axe to grind. There will be no getting away from that risk, but equally what will the reasonable employer have to fear? From the employee’s perspective there will in some cases be the fear of victimisation for raising matters with the HSE. That is a real fear; I have just read an EAT case where the allegation was made that an employer stopped a discretionary bonus because he believed a member of staff had reported the business for health and safety breaches. Ways around this fear employee may have could include strengthening the communication to employees about their rights to prevent unfair treatment of people who raise such allegations.

As I have previously suggested, there is much in the application of health and safety protection that is common sense. Some matters clearly need expert help and advice, but if employees and employers are fully aware of the rules – and the reasoning behind them – then random inspections should not be needed, but a more targeted approach where the real problems lie.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

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