Manufacturing intelligence – part of the Health & Safety supplement

Richard Jones, policy and technical director for the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), talks about how strong health and safety in manufacturing not only saves lives – it makes good business sense.

Manufacturing is one of the engines of the British economy and currently provides employment to almost 2.5 million people. As we recover from the financial crisis and the economy starts to grow, the government anticipates new jobs will be created in ‘green technologies’ and manufacturing will have a key part to play.

But, as well as the opportunities, there are also many challenges that lie ahead. As the country struggles in the current financial crisis and prepares for the public spending cuts, we must make sure health and safety does not become a casualty of austerity.

As well as the humanitarian argument for health and safety, there is also a strong business case. We know good work is good for health and wellbeing and we also know that positive feelings about work have been linked with higher productivity, profitability and customer loyalty – all essential as we recover from recession. There are lots of examples of manufacturing companies reaping the benefits of good health and safety management. Like the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca that saved £5 million in one year, or the engineering firm Rolls- Royce that saved £11 million over three years.

And businesses seeking new or retained contracts may find, in an increasingly competitive and globalised market, more customers requiring suppliers to demonstrate their risk management credentials. This may mean meeting the requirements of procurement standards or pre-tender criteria, including certification of health and safety management systems to a recognised international standard such as BS OHSAS 18001. IOSH provides free guidance and on-line tools (www.iosh.co.uk/guidance)on management systems, business risk management and training and competence at www.iosh.co.uk/standards

So, how is the industry doing on health and safety? Although around 9% of Britain’s workforce are employed in manufacturing, worryingly, it accounts for 16% of reported injuries to employees. And sadly last year, 25 workers in this sector were killed at work, with over 4,000 major injuries and more than 15,000 over 3-day injuries also reported.

Employers in manufacturing lost around 2.4 million working days in 2009-10 to work-related injury and ill health. Rates of injury vary greatly across this diverse industry, which includes automotive, aerospace and defence, oil and gas refining, chemicals, construction and building products, packaging, clean technologies, machinery and equipment, food and beverages and recycling.

For example, the small sub-group ‘recycling’ has a reported major injury rate of more than five times that of manufacturing as a whole. Food products and beverages and fabricated metal products have major injury rates 1.5 times that of all manufacturing and, together, account for 39% of all major injuries reported in this sector. And small does not necessarily mean safe – research has found small manufacturers can have around double the rate of fatal injuries and amputations as larger ones.

What kinds of injuries and illnesses are we talking about? The most common kinds of reported injuries are due to handling (32%) or slips and trips (21%). The sector also suffers 56% of reported injuries involving contact with moving machinery, 24% involving explosions, 21% hit by moving or falling objects or fire, and 19% from contact with harmful substances.

In the previous 12 months, an estimated 94,000 people whose current or last job was in manufacturing, suffered illness they believed caused or made worse by work. Work-related illness assessed by specialists shows manufacturing had higher incidence rates than the ‘all-industries’ averages for asbestos-related diseases, dermatitis, asthma, vibration white-finger, upper limb disorders and spine and back problems.

We must remember that each of these failures is a personal tragedy for the individuals concerned and their families. Workers, some very young and with their whole futures ahead of them, can have their lives taken or blighted by serious illness or injury through lack of care at work. All of this suffering, business interruption and reputational damage can be prevented through effective health and safety management.

And what about improvements? Though year-onyear variation in the number and rates of fatal injuries makes it difficult to quantify progress – the figures suggest a continuing (if slowing) progress on these from 1981, since when, the rate has fallen by over half.

While for major injuries, there has been a decreasing trend since 1996 and similarly, a fairly continuous fall in the rate of over 3-day injuries since about 1994.

However, unfortunately, we know from past recessions that during periods of economic downturn, although accidents can reduce and rates go down (due to fewer inexperienced workers in the workplace and fewer hours being worked), the opposite is also true.

So, as we emerge from recession and industry picks up speed again, it is important that employers do train and supervise new staff properly and don’t turn a blind eye if excessive hours are being worked. And where economic growth is slow and fragile, accidents can start to rise even before recovery is assured, due to false economies and corner-cutting. These would include things like delaying spend on staff training or new equipment or skimping on maintenance programmes.

What about the future? Just as manufacturing seeks to reverse an image of declining relevance – so too health and safety seeks to reverse negative public perceptions and urban myths. Interestingly, the recent ‘Business perceptions survey 2010’ found a significant fall in the proportion of firms finding compliance the most challenging part of business since 2009. And encouragingly, health and safety was generally viewed more positively than other compliance areas, with respondents likely to feel ‘well-informed’ about it, perhaps underlining the potential role of training and education in improving perceptions.

As we move forwards, it is vital that Britain’s employers are ready to make and seize opportunities for success. To do this, they need well-trained and engaged workforces, strong leadership and access to good health and safety advice. Manufacturing intelligence is about finding the best solutions and keeping people safe. Reorganisation, job creation and new apprenticeships are all ideal opportunities to get health and safety right from the start – designing it in, not bolting it on!