Leading on health and safety across local government

Health and safetyThese are challenging times for local government. Councils face significant cuts in their budgets for delivering public services − cuts which have already begun to take effect. This is, in any case, a period of rapid change in local government as councils seek innovations in service delivery in order to do more with less. There is also a trend towards local decision making, with councils being given greater responsibility for setting their own priorities.

There is a danger that, amid all these challenges and concerns, the health, safety and welfare of the workforce will be pushed down the agenda. And yet, as Steve Sumner of Local Government Employers (LGE) has pointed out, the starting point for any local authority in these testing times “is a safe, healthy, well motivated and
productive workforce.”  

Furthermore, the available statistics for injury trends within local government give little cause for complacency. The total number of injuries to local government employees reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has plateaued, with little change over time. While there has been a significant decrease in reported injuries for construction and maintenance workers employed by local authorities − possibly because this type of work is increasingly being contracted out – this has been offset by rises in reported injuries to those in other services such as education and refuse collection.  

Strong leadership

One way of raising health and safety standards is to encourage strong leadership within organisations – a key theme of HSE’s health and safety strategy for Great Britain. It is vital that those ‘at the top of the shop’ lead the way in promoting the importance of health and safety, while at the same time understanding that a sensible and proportionate approach must be taken. This applies just as much to councils as it does to commercial companies and other organisations. HSE, working with LGE, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA), arranged a workshop on this topic earlier in the year. It brought together elected members, senior managers and health and safety managers from a number of authorities to identify risk management priorities and to explore ways of ensuring that local government demonstrates leadership in delivering a coherent health and safety strategy, both as employers and commissioners of services.  

HSE’s Chair, Judith Hackitt, gave the keynote speech, focusing on the need to demonstrate a commonsense approach to risk in the public sector, and identifying a key role for leaders in separating “real risks from trivia”. She emphasised that effective leadership sets the tone for a positive health and safety culture.

The workshop touched on other key issues, such as the role of local authorities as exemplars for the wider community, the importance of elected members in demonstrating a balanced and informed approach to health and safety issues, and practical ways for chief executives and senior managers to demonstrate effective leadership.  

When the delegates were asked to identify those issues that mattered most to them, some common themes emerged, such as the importance of health and safety in procurement and partnership working, competence in knowing and acting on the right standards, and ensuring that strategic decision makers recognise the importance of real health and safety.

Working together

The LGE and WLGA have seized the opportunity to work with HSE and develop a strategy delivery framework for councils across England and Wales. This is being progressed through a working group set up by the LGE National Health and Safety Practitioners Panel.

The framework will be sufficiently flexible to incorporate priorities and enable initiatives at a national, regional and individual local authority level. It is expected to comprise a high-level vision and statement of principles from local government and HSE. This is supplemented by an annual strategy theme, beginning with ‘effective leadership’.

National initiatives are planned under the current theme but individual LAs or regional groups can focus on those priorities that particularly matter to them and on developing local initiatives to meet those needs.  

Sharing good practice and developing toolkits and case studies will be the keys to success for this strategy. So will self-evaluation, which will take into account a series of leading and lagging indicators, including accident and ill health data and implementation of policy initiatives. However, the aim is to go beyond those to try to capture best practice in embedding an effective risk management culture in local authorities.

Case study
A council was having problems with slips. Over a four year period 317 slip incidents had been recorded, 26 of which resulted in employees receiving a major injury or being off work for over three days. In an attempt to reduce the number of accidents in the kitchen and catering areas the council introduced various solutions over a
five-year period:
• Improved management of spillages and the cleaning regimes
• Enforcement of sensible shoe policy
• Improved housekeeping
• Effective training, supervision and induction
• Treatment of floor with a non-slip screed where repeated slip incidents occurred

But, despite these good control measures, slips were still happening and the impact of these accidents was far reaching. As well as the personal impact on employees from having an injury at work, the council found itself not only having to find staff to cover absences, but having to find money to cover the ever increasing personal injury claims submitted; in excess of £20,000 had been paid out just to settle five claims.

The council went back to the slips risk assessment to see what else could be done; the review revealed that protective non-slip footwear (PPE) for all at-risk staff might be the answer.

Before making any significant purchases, the council carried out extensive research into the different types of anti-slip footwear available, taking into account the environment the footwear was to be used in, the range of surfaces it would encounter, ease of cleaning, turnover of staff and the cost. As a result a non-slip overshoe was sourced and given to 50 mobile catering staff that worked within a number of different kitchens with a variety of floor surfaces and a footwear trial conducted. The trial lasted two months; during that time there were no slips to the employees that wore the overshoe.  

Positive feedback
Feedback was gathered from staff on the overshoe slip resistant qualities, comfort when being worn, general fit and ease of use. Some of the quotes from staff included:
• “Comfortable and easy to wear, the shoes stopped me when I expected to slip”
• “These shoes offered protection against slipping”
• “You don’t know they’re on”
• “I would not like to work in the kitchen without them now”

Following the success of the trial, a policy was formulated making it compulsory for all staff to wear the overshoes whilst at work. The policy also extended to other personnel visiting and working in kitchens.

The overshoes were distributed at a total cost of around £18,000. In the nine months, prior to their introduction there had been four reportable slip incidents and 21 non-reportable slips incidents. In the six months following their introduction, there were no reportable slip incidents, the first time since recording slip statistics began eight years previously. There was also a big impact on non-reportable slip incidents, the figure reduced from 21 to 10, a 52 per cent reduction. An investigation revealed that in eight of these incidents individuals had not been wearing overshoes at the time of the accident, due to not having received delivery or having to order an alternative size.

The council was pleased to be finally making significant improvements in managing slip risk within kitchens and felt that the reduction in incidents would be maintained by the ongoing use of the non-slip overshoes.

For more information
Further details of the workshop are available at www.hse.gov.uk/services/localgovernment/index.htm
If you wish to share your success with your approaches please go to www.hse.gov.uk/strategy/pledge.htm