Robey’s Blog: Health & Safety – Just Say “Yes”!
I really much prefer to share with you the direct experiences of my HR career, but occasionally, with a weekly blog, I have to dip more into my expectations, aspirations or suspicions than I can into cold, hard experience. And this is one of those weeks.
I find myself troubled by Health & Safety. Not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with the Health & Safety of our staff and clients at Age UK Gloucestershire! But continuous improvement is very much the expectation when it comes to H&S and, as I turn my attention to this ponderous and – let’s be honest – occasionally tedious subject it’s hard not to have the looming spectre of the Grenfell Tower in the back of my mind as worst-case scenarios dance through my imagination.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, a headline caught my eye last week, in which it was reported that a woman threw a handful of coins at a jet engine, apparently for “luck”.
Whilst this is amusing (because, thank goodness, the plane never took off), it made we wonder about the culture of an industry – aviation – in which a “near miss” event can achieve worldwide headlines in a way that simply doesn’t happen in any other industry that I can think of. It’s not a new topic of inquiry and that document I just linked to mentions the idea that other industries, such as mining and metal manufacture might also offer important lessons to healthcare, and I’ve got no opinion on that because my point is less about the details than it is about the culture of these and other industries where the wellbeing of employees and customers is absolutely reliant upon a practice of effective H&S.
Culture is a tricky thing to manage and manipulate but my instinct tells me that we’re on the cusp of a new attitude to H&S. It’s rarer and rarer that I hear people complaining about it as a burden and more and more often that I hear people complaining about it as something not done properly. That’s just my gut feeling, but it’s pretty well established now that the new generations in our workforce have grown up around adults who understand risk assessments and mitigating actions, and who are used to having their voices heard when it comes to pointing out something they think isn’t safe. “Tell us”, say parents and teachers and social workers and community volunteers, “or we don’t know we need to do something”. And so they have and, for the most part, we’re doing a much better job of listening. The emergence of historical child abuse scandals, horrible though the details might be, are at least evidence that institutions are more ready than they have ever been to hear the voices of victims, whistleblowers and complainants. Grenfell Tower is evidence, if nothing else, that we still have a way to go, but the horror felt by the population at the revelation that the concerns of residents were ignored again and again will itself be a powerful driver for change.
So what? Well, so the time is better than it has ever been to start changing an important part of your business culture. This is the perfect time to start encouraging your people to make their voices heard when it comes to doubts about H&S. The time is ripe for the rise of the Incident Report!
No, it’s not very exciting, is it?
But its potential is huge.
An Incident Report is a short, simple template with which an employee (or volunteer, worker or even, potentially, a client or customer, although ideally an employee) can report a H&S issue: something that happened, or nearly happened, with the confidence that something will be done in response!
Imagine if your industry’s H&S culture was so rigorous and professional that a near miss was enough to make international headlines. Imagine that your clients’ and employees’ trust in their wellbeing in your care was so powerful that they would literally trust you with their lives in their hundreds and thousands. And it’s not just about reducing accidents and injuries. A culture of intelligent, responsive H&S communicates a strong message of professionalism and, with that, quality. When people take H&S seriously, you know they care about the details.
So if that sounds like Shangri-la to you, let me tell you a bit about how I’m going about trying to capitalize on this moment. I can’t promise it’s foolproof. It’s early days, yet. But this is my take on it:
- Get the basics right. You need those policies in place, confident that they comply with the law and are readable, accessible product that your employees can refer to and know for sure that they are getting accurate, up-to-date information and guidance on good practice, tailored for your workplace and/or industry.
- Get training. There needs to be an expectation that your people are training regularly and consistently in the essential skills and knowledge of H&S, and the resources available for them to get it.
- Nag. It’s not nice, having to hassle people into completing their reports. But continuously communicating the expectation makes it clear that the training and policy they’ve already seen isn’t just lip-service: it’s action that you expect to see followed-through. Remind your senior managers at every opportunity. If you see or hear about an incident or near-miss, follow up and make sure the reports are filed.
- Respond. Miss this out and everything else you do is wasted time. If incident reports just get filed and forgotten, nothing will change and the whole process will go back to sleep. You need to tell people if something changes; you need to remind people of processes if they’ve been allowed to slip; and you need to tell that the reason you’re doing it is in response to an actual incident or near miss. This is what tells them that the incident reports matter; that someone is paying attention and that they voices are being heard and responded to.
That last point is one that’s worth underlining before I sign off. Employees like to feel that their voices are heard. But that can be hard to help them with if usually their suggestions are impractical, unfeasible or impossible to act upon, which means they can feel de-motivated and disconnected when the purpose of asking them for their opinion in the first place was the opposite. But responding to Incident Reports isn’t just quite easy (usually): it’s your legal obligation. So if you want to show your people that you listen, and have a chance to respond in a way that serves their interests, it makes sense to get your H&S house in order.
More engaged employees in a healthier, safer workplace. What doesn’t make sense about that?