Health and safety: good for business

Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, looks at the lessons of June’s Grenfell Tower fire and the importance of sharing information in health and safety communications

The images of the fire at Grenfell Tower and its dreadful aftermath are of the type that will echo through the ages. Few such images in the history of Britain will be as haunting as those of the tower block engulfed in flames, or as those of its blackened skeleton standing stark against a blue sky. They will stay with the British public forever, and now we must ensure that, for the safety and well-being of future generations, we use them as a catalyst for real change.

In recent weeks it has been confirmed that a total of 71 people were killed in the disaster. For them, we must ensure that the right lessons are not just learned, but that the right actions are implemented to safeguard against future loss of life on this, or any, scale. And while the inquest into the tragedy is just getting under way, and will no doubt be a long and tortuous investigation, there are things that everyone can do now to start making the relevant changes.

The first thing we must do, in both the public and private sectors, is stop seeing health and safety as a burden. For many the three little words, ‘health and safety’, conjure up images of children being forced to wear goggles while playing conkers, or of obsessive jobsworths laden with hard hats and clipboards.

While these metaphors for ‘elf ‘n’ safety gone mad may manifest in real life from time to time, they will only be through a misinterpretation of obligations, or a fear of the ‘where there’s blame there’s a claim’ legal mumbo jumbo. But in real life, we in the industry know that 99.9 per cent of the time these symbols of our sector are nothing more than fabrication.

They are symptomatic of the current society in which we live, and have a number of causes at their root – too many to mention here. For whatever reason, and rather dangerously, the mainstream media persists in perpetuating the notion that health and safety is nothing more than a bothersome tick-box exercise.

In an example of this, in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire the Daily Mail, quite rightly, called for answers as to how such a disaster could befall a building in a country as developed as ours. They were outraged. And yet just months later, in an article on a completely unrelated topic, it claimed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to be a ‘self-appointed PC zealot’, falling back to its default position of health and safety bashing. It is nonsensical hypocrisy.

The rewards of regulation
Understandably then, from a political standpoint, health and safety regulations are seen to be a quick win. Over the past decade or so at government level, we have seen a gradual erosion of not just the image of health and safety but of regulations themselves.

The current government recently adopted a deregulatory ‘one in, three out’ position; prior to that the position was ‘one in, two out’. The moves are seen as being pro-business, as freeing enterprise from the red tape that previously shackled them and prevented them from making more money. Lately this drive for deregulation appears to be driven by anti-European sentiment. Many falsely believe that regulations are being imposed on the UK by Brussels, when in fact it is the UK – the safest place to work in the world – that has exported its good health and safety practice abroad, which has then been adopted into wider European regulation.

Quite the opposite of this broad opinion, we know that good and proportionate health and safety is very good for business. In 2015/16 alone, there were 31.2 million working days lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries. This figure is huge, and I have no doubt that in a vast number of these cases workplaces will not have followed Health and Safety at Work Act regulation.

Every single person employed in the health and safety sector is driven to protect life and well-being, but we are already fighting an uphill battle against popular opinion without the erosion of the rules and regulations that underpin what we do. So I would implore local authorities, businesses and other organisations to think twice before jumping on the anti-health-and-safety bandwagon. Not only does it protect your clients and staff, but it also helps to futureproof your organisation.

In the meantime, there have been many questions over why the local authority and housing association at the heart of the Grenfell inquiry did not do more to address concerns that had previously been raised by residents. I’m not going to pre-empt the ruling of the inquiry as to what did and did not happen in the lead up to the fire, but I can help to advise over any concerns that other organisations might have around their own communications with their stakeholders.

Open communication is fundamentally important, whether that’s with residents, customers, staff, whoever. Key to this communication is ensuring that everyone has their voice heard. And I don’t mean ‘listening’ for the sake of pretence. Organisations have to take on board what they are being told, and act where it is appropriate to act based on their conversations.

Real communication is a two-way street, and there has to be a consistent strategy to assist people to use their own voice, and to make sure that, not only that they feel like they are being consulted, but their concerns are actually being taken into account and acted upon. Those with residents should think about committees, and distribution of clear information to ensure people are informed about any changes.

Information sharing
These channels may already be in place, but how sure can you be that people are utilising them? There must be a defined way of sharing information between residents or clients and organisations. Don’t simply push information out and expect that the message has been received – as George Bernard Shaw said, the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Collect regular feedback, ask for recommendations, get out on the ground and speak to people.

The first step towards having open and honest dialogue is building trust and respect with your relevant communities. They need to know that you are listening, not just putting on a show of listening. A good tactic may be to identify key influencers in your communities in the first instance, and build a relationship with them.

Organisations may already feel that they have these processes in place, but an audit of your communication channels and messages may help to discover where any holes lie. Another tip I would give is to really engage with and involve your communications professionals. They should be acting not just as ‘talking heads’, but as organisational barometers – they will know how to communicate and listen, who to communicate and listen to, and so will be the first to pick up on any emerging issues that may require attention.

There will no doubt be a lot to learn following the Moore-Bick Inquiry, but until then we must act to face up to the daily challenges that individuals and organisations meet to ensure that people return home unharmed by what they do for a living.

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