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Annie Hayes

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Risking it all? Preventing accidents at work

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Accidents at work

Sticks and stones will break your bones … and so will slips, trips and falls. Annie Hayes looks at the very real costs of minor accidents at work and discovers that the ‘trivial’ can quickly spiral to the ‘serious and costly’.


From ‘minor’ to ‘major’

According to official figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), those accidents that are sometimes classed as ‘minor’ (slips, trips and falls) cost employers over £512 million a year in lost production and other costs.

It’s also the single most common cause of injuries at work. To put that in perspective, in the catering and hospitality industry alone, the problem cost British society £31 million last year, while the food retail and food manufacturing industries’ serious injuries carried a price tag of £50 million combined. Unsurprisingly, the construction, building and plant maintenance industry came in highest with a total cost of £139 million.

It’s a problem that is growing in importance and concern, so much so that the HSE has launched its new ‘Shattered Lives’ campaign to highlight the devastating consequences of simple accidents in the workplace.

Dr Elizabeth Gibby, head of the Injuries Reduction Programme at the HSE, says: “What these figures don’t reflect is the extent to which these injuries affect individual workers and their families.”

“At the MD’s induction on one site, they failed to give him a high visibility vest and he said he wouldn’t continue without it.”

Steve Boorman, Royal Mail Group

For many organisations, the risk profile is also huge. Steve Boorman, director of corporate responsibility for the Royal Mail Group, reveals the organisation’s extremely real experiences of the issues: “We’re very proud that we’ve reduced accidents by 50% in the last five years. It was a very real problem for us, with 193,000 employees reaching 27 million addresses across the UK and one and a half million miles being driven every day.”

Boorman goes onto explain that the problem they faced, and continue to do so, is the risk to workers outside of the organisation’s property – road and on-foot risks.

And of course what also provides difficulty across the sectors is that the potential causes are infinite and everywhere – obstacles left on walkways, dangers of slips from food, oil, water or poorly constructed and/or faulty floorings, stairs etc – you get the picture.

So what can be done to reduce the problems and is health and safety training the only answer?

‘Walking the talk’

Boorman explains that the starting point for Royal Mail was to understand and quantify the problem: “We then concentrated on simple communication to build awareness.”

This involved introducing league tables across the organisation where accidents across the offices could be compared and the worst performing sites identified. Building up that information and establishing patterns was aided by the introduction of an electronic reporting incidents system (Erica).

Corroborating the findings of the HSE, Royal Mail Group quickly found that it was the slips, trips and falls, often brought about my manual handling procedures, that were causing the majority of the accidents.

Boorman also emphasises the importance of senior management backing: “In a matter of months we’ve had the arrival of three new, dynamic leaders including the managing director of our letters business, an operations director and HR director – they’ve all been very passionate about our focus on safety and that’s played out in how they behave. It’s essential that senior figures ‘walk the talk’. At the MD’s induction on one site, they failed to give him a high visibility vest and he said he wouldn’t continue without it.”

Prevention is better than cure

Building the risk profile and conducting a risk assessment is the first port of call and the HSE recommends a five-step approach to risk assessment with slip and trip risks being amongst the risks examined:

Risk checklist

Step 1: Look for slip and trip hazards around the workplace, such as uneven floors, trailing cables, areas that are sometimes slippery due to spillages. Include outdoor areas.

Step 2: Decide who might be harmed and how: Who comes into the workplace? Are they at risk? Do you have any control over them? Remember that older people and people with disabilities may be at particular risk.

Step 3 Consider the risks: Are the precautions already taken adequate to deal with the risks?

Step 4 Record your findings if you have five or more employees.

Step 5 Regularly review the assessment: If any significant changes take place, make sure existing precautions and management arrangements are still adequate to deal with the risks.

Source: The Health and Safety Executive

Boorman says that part of this process is making sure your ‘policies’ are fit for purpose and, in reality, the job is about making sure the conditions for safe working are right from the outset.

The HSE goes onto say that it’s about choosing only suitable floor surfaces, avoiding very smooth floors in areas that are likely to become wet/contaminated and ensuring that lighting levels are sufficient and pedestrian and traffic routes are properly planned. Of course it’s also crucial that the proper clothing is issued where required, particularly footwear.

And of course backing this all up is a liberal smattering of the required health and safety training – Boorman suggests that the obvious solution is to tailor training. At Royal Mail, generic training is offered when people join or move to a new office, whilst specialist training is offered where required for drivers, and a further layer is added according to seniority – for managers for example. The law, of course, does play its part and with the introduction of the new corporate manslaughter rules, the playing fields have changed once again.

What the law says

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force on 6 April 2008. Legal specialist Jim Astle, of Darbys solicitors, says that the government’s intention was to make it easier to prosecute companies who fail to protect people.

Key to this law is that it is no longer necessary for the prosecution to prove a gross breach by the ‘directing mind’ of the organisation, such as a director of a duty of care owed to the victim.

Now the prosecution, says Astle, must prove a death caused by the way in which an organisations’ activities are managed or organised by its senior management, and where the latter amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.

Yet wipe away the hype, and Boorman says that in reality the laws, in one sense, have had very little impact: “We already had the right training in place. The law has given us the opportunity to refresh the emphasis on safety with the prospect of more personal and serious penalties and this has grabbed management attention.”

Astle warns that with no limit to the fines, and companies facing going out of business if their conviction is publicised, organisations much ensure their health and safety procedures are watertight.

But it’s not just staying on the right side of the law that should encourage organisations to put their health and safety practices in check, but the very real danger of employees injuring themselves.

At Royal Mail such was the scale of the problem that a third of accidents were accounted for by slips, trips and falls. The ‘trivial’ became the ‘serious’ when the cost escalated to many millions but even once things have got better, companies cannot afford to put their feet up, as Boorman concludes: “We recognise it’s a race we haven’t won yet. There are positive trends that we are very proud of but there is still more to do.”

And that really is at the heart of proactive health and safety management – the will and understanding that more can always be done.

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Annie Hayes

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