Line managers short of health and safety training

As businesses strain to remain afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has never been more important to get health and safety right. Virman Man says that line managers, who mediate the space between senior management and frontline staff, have the responsibility for ensuring that their teams are tasked safely and act safely. A recent report examines how well prepared they are for this role

Who’d be a line manager? Squeezed between a rock and a hard place – between senior managers and frontline staff – it can be a thankless role. Being charged with production or service targets and having to pass these on persuasively requires a careful balancing act.

Some people in line management positions are naturals. They’re self-aware, clear about the results they want to achieve, good at listening, understand how to gain the respect of their colleagues through good communication skills and know how and when to delegate.

However, those who don’t possess these skills and attributes may find them difficult to acquire. They have to go through a process to learn about management and leadership styles and techniques: training is key. And this is also the case when we consider responsibility for workplace health and safety.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) worked with market research specialist YouGov to carry out a survey of mainly small and medium-sized organisations (250 or fewer employees, but excluding sole traders) on how organisations manage health and safety. The resulting report, How to manage your people safely, reveals that 96 per cent of nearly 700 company decision-makers from a range of sectors agree that line managers are important in ensuring the people who report to them are safe and healthy in the workplace.

Training to manage safely
Participants were asked how they made sure that their managers have the right level of skills, knowledge and understanding to manage people safely and, in particular, about the access these employees have to health and safety training. More than half of respondents (53 per cent) who train their line managers said that they had invested in health and safety training for managers from an outside provider.

Worryingly, though, despite the near-universal agreement on line managers’ important health and safety roles, nearly a fifth of respondents (19 per cent) said their organisations had no form of health and safety training at all for their line managers. This is a serious cause for concern. Without this training, how do line managers gain the competence to make a proper assessment of something that could cause an accident or be harmful to health? How can they know what they need to do in the face of a health and safety risk?

The report shows the consequences of this shortfall in training, with 21 per cent of respondents saying that investigations into accidents had shown a management failure to be a contributing factor. Health and safety training is particularly crucial now. Against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses across all sectors must manage an array of risks. While taking steps to make sure that their workplaces are Covid-safe, they cannot take their eye off measures to prevent all other hazards. Again, line managers are key here.

Health and safety training: an investment, not a cost
To those who continue to take the view that health and safety training is just another cost to be borne by hard-pressed businesses and that it is all common sense in any case, there is some serious persuading to be done. There is growing evidence in business of the returns from investment in workplace safety and health. The International Social Security Association, for example, estimates a 120 per cent dividend, and the ratio is even higher for return-to-work programmes for people following injury or illness.

Organisations that invest in health and safety training see a positive impact on their workers’ effectiveness and a range of business benefits, such as a more positive work culture, increased productivity and an enhanced reputation. These employers are also mitigating the risk of huge costs to their organisation and to society more widely of poor health – it is estimated that the total cost to society of each workplace fatality in Britain is nearly £1.7 million.

More than four in five businesses (82 per cent) in How to manage your people safely said that investing in external provision of health and safety training courses for their managers was driving business benefits. Of these, 83 per cent respondents highlighted an increase in active staff engagement to improve workplace safety – a ‘bottom-up, top-down’ model of operation. The point here is that if employees are truly to be involved in improving health and safety performance, they must believe that their views are being listened to – that they can report risk and be assured that their management team will act.

Another business benefit experienced by organisations bringing in health and safety training was improved organisation-wide safety awareness culture (79 per cent). Training courses equip managers with the skills, knowledge and understanding required to assess risk, demonstrate the organisation’s commitment to good health and safety and can involve participation at all levels.

External courses can bring about a reduction in lost time due to accidents. Predicting risk and putting preventative measures in place are affordable ways of minimising the potential business costs of insurance claims and fines from health and safety breaches. Increased productivity because of the reductions in the number of accidents will be something in which all businesses should have an interest – in terms of not only output but also cost to their staff as individuals.  

These are quite apart from the reputational benefits of the organisation’s ethical standpoint, safety performance and past record that could help to gain or keep customers, win contracts or gain other competitive advantage.

So the message is clear: health and safety training for line managers can lead to a productive, engaged and healthy workforce and improved business performance.

The need for good occupational safety and health

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive on occupational health for 2018–19 in Great Britain revealed that there were:

•    1.4 million cases of work-related ill health, with 23.5 million working days lost.
•    13,000 deaths from past exposures at work.
•    602,000 cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety.
•    498,000 cases of work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
•    around £22 billion annual loss to the economy, including from long-latency diseases.

Line managers and staff mental health

A survey conducted by IOSH and Management Today in 2019 showed that:

•    62 per cent of line managers receive insufficient organisational help to support staff mental well-being.
•    Only 31 per cent feel they have sufficient training to recognise signs of poor mental health in their direct reports.
•    80 per cent won’t discuss mental health with their line managers, fearing stigmatisation and being seen as incapable in their role.
•    22 per cent of line managers rarely discuss mental health with their direct reports and 11 per cent never do so.
•    Where mental health training and support is in place, it tends to be optional (79 per cent) rather than mandatory (22 per cent).

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