H&S – bureaucracy that is above criticism

Posted on 31 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

Is it right for red tape to stop a person from doing their job quickly, efficiently and where risk is responsibly self-assessed?

Despite events such as the tragic death of James Kay at Sonae Industria in Kirkby on August 6, which brought industrial health and safety (H&S) back into the national headlines, many manufacturers find excessive safety regulations a burden to the business efficiency that is demanded by both their company’s board and the industry they compete in.

A family friend left his job with a government agency earlier this year after 22-years of good service and a spotless employment record.

John (a pseudonym) is a man born to work outdoors and is, by some distance, the fittest 50-year old I know. He enjoyed his old job very much, but in the end, enough was enough.

Health and safety regulations, while very important in a job that requires operating machinery including heavy chainsaws, had become so suffocating as to make the job impractical to do.

“By the end, we were told for a maintenance job that only requires one or two people, we needed a third person present to monitor that safety procedures were being applied,” John says. “I understood the sentiment behind it. But in practice, when the third man was late, or couldn’t be deployed, two of us could do nothing and a whole day would be wasted.”

Machinery is provided with ‘vibration tickets’, designed to protect the operator from physical effects of using power equipment for too long. The manufacturers’ ticket might say that, for example, safe operation of a machine is four hours within a working day, but this employer insisted that 1.5 hours was the safe operating time. A cordless power drill was only allowed to be used for five minutes per person per person (yes, five minutes per day…).

John has worked outdoors in land management jobs for over 30-years. In all that time he has had just two or three work-related accidents, none of them severe.

Lucky him, one might say. But he has many other anecdotes where too much well-meaning bureaucracy has wasted time, when the true risk of hazard in an operation was no greater with one or two people involved than three. A single dead branch – itself a hazard to passers-by – in a tree adjacent to a tree being worked on, required its own paperwork and certificate, just to be trimmed.

“All the guys who just enjoyed doing a full day’s work have left”, says John.

While John’s field is land management, many manufacturing employees too think that H&S rules and regulations, in some areas, have gone too far.

And while the number who are prepared to quit their jobs over H&S rules may be low, many feel hamstrung to do the jobs they are qualified to do effectively, within an appropriate time, because excessive H&S procedures slow them down and demand too many people to perform and monitor a simple task.

Unsurprisingly, however, few people want to criticise H&S measures openly for fear of appearing unsupportive of a very important subject. Talk to some in industry and there is a sense that this has nurtured a ‘closed shop’ approach to safety regs where more open and critical debate is urgently needed.

Unite criticises HSE’s draft manufacturing strategy

Attempting to rationalise H&S regulation in the interests of efficiency and cost-saving is a thankless task immersed in sensitivity. On August 31, the union Unite responded to the Health and Safety Executive’s draft manufacturing strategy by criticising the government’s policy on health and safety that lies behind it.

Tony Burke, Unite’s assistant general secretary and head of manufacturing, said: “Unite cannot support a strategy which oversees a reduction in health and safety standards and which, we believe, puts manufacturing workers, many of them Unite members, at greater risk. This strategy is built on the back of cuts to the HSE and will lead to fewer inspections, less enforcement, and more deaths, injuries and ill health at work.”

Burke adds: “Unite is fundamentally at odds with the Tory-led government’s approach to health and safety. This is just another example of government cuts affecting working people – in this case their health and safety. Unite will fight these cuts and will continue to defend the health and safety of people at work.”

Nobody would say that H&S work place regulations and guidelines, devised and policed in England and Wales by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), are there to deliberately impede the efficiency of manufacturing and those sectors that require mainly manual work. Safety procedures are essential to protect human life and with 27 work-related deaths in UK manufacturing in 2010, more is needed to be done. But, in certain cases, has good intention gone too far?

Colin Larkin, plant manager at Case New Holland UK in Basildon, which assembles about 20,000 tractors a year, says yes. “We’re spending about 75% of our general operations budget a year on health and safety, and the balance on cost-saving measures that have a payback. We think 30%-50% is more appropriate.” Doesn’t this show that you’ve just come from a low base, though? No, he says, it’s about the interpretation of what is needed to minimise risk of accident at the actual point of risk.

CNH UK works closely with the HSE and in most cases the factory floor level measures are appropriate to the risks, Mr Larkin says. “It’s the periphery that causes problems. Our plant is about 100,000 square feet [the size of two football pitches]. About 20 people a year go on the roof. But because of this small number, we have to put guard railing all around the outside – a safe procedure will not suffice. We’ve got to do it in one go, we can’t do it one section per year. That’s £250,000 just for railing.”

A few H&S things affect CNH’s daily competitiveness, crucial in an organisation that competes between plants within a large group. Maximum manual lifting weights, for example, are lower in the UK than in France, Spain and even Germany and Austria, Larkin sys. To comply with an audit, therefore, you either require two people to life an item or need to buy a lifting aid.

In general, Larkin agrees with HSE’s measures within the plant. “Our main contention is the number of staff they want working in each plant monitoring H&S, which measured against our peers (abroad) makes us less competitive. These staff are away from their core job more, doing courses. We have a good relationship with HSE but there are some things they’ve put in that we spend a lot of resources trying to fix, when you know the plant in for example Spain is not always following suit.”

Red Tape Challenge spurs big debate

Government’s Red Tape Challenge, an online consultation launched in July to weed out the most superfluous business red tape, has proved a good source of industry’s H&S opinions.
Do you sympathise with or reject this POV?

[From Helen Keeble, posted on May 8, 2011 – re. construction industry mainly] “There is a general feeling that many of the H&S regulations have become too prescriptive and do little to actually prevent accidents or improve employee welfare; many are seen as a paper exercise which often has little impact in the practical world of construction. I complete risk assessments and produce method statements, but I often ask myself what practical benefit these have, as the men who work for us do not read them – they are tradesmen, not academics.

“Their only purpose is to prove, should it become necessary, that we have carried out the job in a safe manner. The men know how to do the work safely because they have been suitably trained and supervised, having a file of risk assessments etc just adds to the cost of the job. It is getting increasingly difficult to deliver a good standard of work within the legal framework required at a price that ordinary members of the public can afford.

“I suspect that many will be tempted to go to the cowboys who do not operate under the same H&S legislation as the rest of us, and don’t have the added costs of escalating public liability insurance, CITB levy, National Insurance etc. Surely it would be more sensible for small building contractors to run their jobs on a practical basis, telling the employees what needs to be done and not having to write reams of paperwork that gather dust.”

Safety first, always
Some, however, defend the frequency and intensity of H&S measures in the workplace. The chemicals industry is one of the most high hazard manufacturing sectors. A spokesperson for the Chemicals Industry Association believes that no-one in the sector would reject the appropriateness of H&S procedures.

*Where H&S is in some cases stopping people from doing their job is in the over-burdensome ‘slips, trips and falls’ area applicable to other manufacturing sectors,” she says. Chemicals companies have little if any complaints about the weight of H&S measures applied to them. “Where HSE has designed the one-size-fits-all regulation, they are considering big numbers of different types of organisation – it’s possible those who aren’t as high hazard as chemicals who feel they are being penalised. A risk assessment for every single activity is more appropriate in the chemicals sector than it is in an office.”

“The main message we give to the HSE is that they need to work with people like us to helpo find a system where the people who go above and beyond regulation a rewarded with an easier to plan for form of regulation, then they can focus their efforts on companies who aren’t as good / compliant.
Another area that concerns companies is the number and irregularity of H&S inspections. While streamlining these audits into fewer, combined audits is always preferred, to minimise factory disruption, the chemicals sector comes under COMAH – the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulation – which the majority of other manufacturing sites don’t have. This extra audit is an accepted part of the job.

“The main message we give to the HSE is that they need to work with people like us to devise a system where those companies who go above and beyond minimum H&S standards are rewarded with an easier system of audit or demonstration, then the HSE can focus their efforts on companies who are not as compliant.”

Ultimately, as Clive Smith, director of skills for nuclear at sector skills council Cogent says, all H&S measures should be proportionate to the risk. In nuclear, says Smith, the practices are proportional to the risk and people are expected to think safety as part of the culture of the job – the effect of which is a fairly low level of accidents.

Safety management here, says Mr Smith, is as much about perceived risk and the public’s understanding of the risks. “About six months ago, three people died in a petrochemical refinery explosion. It got off the front pages within two days. Were someone to get contaminated with nowhere near a fatal dose in a nuclear plant, it would be all over the papers. We can’t smell or see nuclear power, so people ask what is this peculiar thing, it must be very dangerous.” Consequently, lost time accident data is signed at the entrances to all nuclear sites, where the stats provide reassurance – “if people can trip over loose paving stones ni these places, what else could be lurking?” says Smith.

Latest developments
How H&S, and other, regulation affects business productivity is a crucial matter at a time when all plants, and indeed countries, are competing more fiercely than ever for manufacturing work. It is a driver of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s “war on red tape” and spawned the Red Tape Challenge. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also published a consultation document in June, ‘Transforming regulatory enforcement: freeing up business growth’, to show that BIS is in touch with the problem and to earmark possible solutions. Appropriate H&S legislation is certainly a top level issue if plants like CNH in Basildon find that H&S-related spending is costing 75% of general spending and more laissez-faire policing in some European countries is putting factories at a competitive disadvantage.

The Lofstedt Review of health and safety legislation aims to assess the implementation of H&S regulations in the work place. Many will be craning to know how the Government will assess what parts of H&S law is fair, proper and proportionate to the risk, and which areas are deemed impracticable and a burden on competitiveness.

Commendations to the independent Lofstedt review closed in July, but the review will be published at the end of October.

RIDDOR analysis extends accident reporting period: The HSE announced on August 16 that the reporting period for workplace injuries is to be extended from three to seven days, following an analysis of 776 responses to the consultation on the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR). Add that to the recent changes in the way accidents are reported to the HSE and there are a host of employers in the manufacturing sector unaware of their health and safety responsibilities.

Watch TM.com for an update including advice from law firms on the latest H&S legislative obligations for employers in different sectors.

What are your experiences with applying H&S procedures in the work place; essential precautions in all cases, or unnecessary bureaucracy? Add your comments below or contact Will Stirling at The Manufacturer.