Workplace fatalities have dropped by three quarters in 30 years – here are some of the reasons why

Stuart Foster, an independent Safety Leadership, Risk and Management Systems Consultant, gives his views on how the best performing companies recognise the importance of health and safety.

The theory and practice of health and safety have evolved significantly since the tragic events of Flixborough in 1974 and Piper Alpha in 1988. The role of the health and safety leader was, for too long, portrayed as a jobsworth whose only role in life was to uphold a set of petty rules.

Today, it is no longer enough to just comply with a set of rules and there is general acceptance that compliance can only take health and safety performance so far. Businesses and their shareholders now expect workforces to be safe at all times and recognise the reputational value that this creates.

Health and safety in 2021 is more holistic and inclusive. The safety department no longer has the sole responsibility for safety. In the best performing business, that responsibility is shared; everybody knows their role in delivering safety for the business, themselves and their co-workers.

So, what are the main factors that have led to workplace fatalities dropping to a quarter of the level of 30 years ago?

Leadership and governance

The best performing companies place high expectations on their leaders to be role models where health and safety is concerned. They expect them to understand the hazards and risks associated with the business and to verify for themselves that the relevant controls are in place. These leaders engage with the front-line workforce on a regular basis, not to provide direction, but to listen and to take the pulse of the organisation on matters of health, safety and risk.

These companies put in place robust governance processes for health and safety with policy, strategy and performance being regularly appraised and reviewed by independent directors.

The health and safety leaders in the safest companies report directly to the most senior executive and are not buried in the organisation where there is potential for safety critical messages to get diluted or company politics to get in the way. They ensure that bad news rises to the top of the organisation.

A trained and competent workforce

Much of the health and safety training that was provided in the past was cursory unless one was working in high hazard industry, such as oil and gas or nuclear. Many saw health and safety training as a ‘ticking the box’ exercise that was of low value and only for compliance. These processes did not build competency.

There is a stronger focus on developing health and safety competency within the workforce with training being one part of this. Competency assurance of safety critical tasks is the norm in the best businesses. They recognise that this competency makes for a resilient organisation where health and safety is concerned, with individuals who are able to respond and react appropriately as work conditions change.

Find and fix to predict and prevent

It is no longer acceptable to wait for an incident or near miss to occur before action is taken. The best companies conduct regular reviews of the hazards, risks and controls. They are always in a state of constant vigilance, thinking about the things that might go wrong and putting in place the control measures to prevent an incident or to mitigate the consequence. The transformation from using historic performance to utilising a risk-based approach requires a change in mindset. It requires the maturity to understand that the investment that is made in the risk-based approach never seems as tangible as targeted investment in a programme following a serious incident.

An environment of psychological safety and trust

The best companies seek to create an environment of psychological safety and trust. A place where all members of the workforce feel comfortable raising health and safety concerns, without fear of retaliation. A place where they can be certain that confidential issues remain confidential and where leaders will take immediate action to resolve health and safety matters. Bad news flows up the organisation where psychological safety and trust are present and early indications of increased risk get managed.

Hazard identification and risk management

Most business sectors have now built hazard identification and risk management into their daily processes. Risk assessments are routinely carried out for potentially hazardous work. Work authorisation and permit-to-work processes have matured and become prerequisites for safe working.

The application of behavioural psychology to safety

A simple illustration of this is the recognition of normalisation of deviance or put more simply, that systems and processes degrade over time. This has led to new thinking in work verification and system assurance to confirm that procedures, processes and systems are functioning as intended.

Recognition of human and social factors

There is a recognition of human and social factors in making work safe. The best businesses have robust processes in place to minimise fatigue, stress, distraction, over and under familiarity with task, and other performance shaping factors. They design and engineer their work processes to minimise the potential for short- or long-term harm to the individual. They take into account external social factors that may elevate risk for individuals or groups.

Legislation

Health and safety legislation has been strengthened across the World. Penalties for non-compliance have increased with large fines given to companies that have incidents caused by their failure to comply with the law.

The water, gas, power and waste industries face specific challenges in providing a consistently safe working environment for their employees and contractors. The work is a combination of routine and repeatable processes combined with tasks that have a high degree of inherent variability. Research has shown that to safely manage work with a high degree of inherent variability requires high levels of competency. This competency allows application of the training, coaching and experience that has been gained to be safely applied to new or different scenarios.

Supervision and leadership have a significant role to play in the water, gas, power and waste industries. Their verification and sign off of risk assessments and permits can never be a tick-the-box process. There is no substitute for going to the worksite to verify that the relevant controls are in place and that hazards and risks have been identified. The relationships and rapport that supervisors and leaders develop with their teams can help to develop the psychologically safe environment that allows health and safety concerns to be raised and gives individuals and teams the confidence to stop work when they consider it unsafe.

In summary, effectively managing health and safety has moved from a policing function to a holistic process that touches on many disciplines. There is no single thing that will deliver sustained world class health and safety performance. It is the combination of leadership, process and the development of an environment where everybody recognises and accepts the part they have to play.

Find out more

Energy & Utility Skills supports high levels of competency through its various training schemes and programmes. The Safety, Health and Environmental Awareness (SHEA) training schemes are designed for all those working across the energy and utilities sector who require access to operational sites, including supervisors and managers. Find out more about SHEA Training Schemes.

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