Innovate, then embed the safe way of working

One criticism of Health and Safety Advisers is that they can be focused on constructing endless ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t lists. This is so prevalent that it has become part of any new client’s expectations – an Adviser worth their salt should come armed with thousands of ‘safe working procedures’.

Here are some reasons this doesn’t work:

  • People don’t always work in the same way and a procedure that doesn’t fit will just be ignored
  • Workers don’t generally have the time (or inclination) to read through and consider how to adapt their methods and behaviour to an alien procedure.
  • Any written procedures must be constantly adapted and improved and can’t just be ‘bought in’ and adopted en masse
  • No H&S Adviser actually knows everyone else’s jobs well enough to specify how exactly they should perform it

Luckily, humans like to be innovative – we think of better ways of doing things, we try them, and if they work we carry on doing them. And there’s plenty of scope for this within any of the HSE’s general guidance documents on compliance with H&S laws.

Consider the possible outcomes of a workforce that constantly have to make up and improvise methods every time they carry out a task (this may seem a silly idea, but some workplaces have a lot of staff ‘churn’ and, combined with cursory staff inductions, this may happen more frequently than we’d like to imagine):

  • Some ways that workers try and solve things may lead to unintentional harm
  • Some have the potential to lead to harm but workers just ‘get lucky’ on the day
  • Others are great, reliable and should be adopted as the ‘way it should be done’ from now on

However, it’s not always quick, easy or immediately obvious after a task has been ‘done and dusted’ what were the good things that we should keep doing and what were the bad things that we should caution those who come after us against….it may take a bit of careful analysis, and it’s Friday and we’re anxious to get to the pub.

We’re generally so relieved that the task is over and that it went well, we forget by the time we get back to work to embed any available learning points to make sure it all goes well next time. Or, if you hate your boss you might be tempted to keep the solution to yourself and not ‘raise your head above the parapet’.

And if no-one takes the time to find the good, safe solutions and embed them into the normal behaviour then it may be just as likely that in the future that a ‘bad’ method will be chosen which then leads to disaster.

Looking over some HSE’s accident reports, you can see in cases taken to court the defence saying things like: ‘they hadn’t come across this situation before and were improvising just to get the job done’. This can be reasonable for a genuinely new situation, as long as risks are ‘dynamically’ assessed along the way and the organisation takes it slowly and seriously to ensure risks aren’t missed, and are not just looking at the effect on their profits of a slowdown or the use of safer equipment.

However, I suspect it is also used as a tactic to mitigate for constant bad H&S management – after all, when a shoplifter gets caught it just happens to be the first time they’d ever tried it….honest, M’lud.

In conclusion:

One of the most important ways to improve your health and safety practices and procedures is to carry out regular post-task reviews.

Here are our hints to overcome the natural tendency to just quickly move on without capturing the golden nuggets of good practice that are still fresh in people’s minds:

  • Routinely schedule a team meeting immediately after important jobs to get feedback on what went right.
  • We all know that learning often takes a certain amount of repetition, so reviewing ‘what went right’ as soon as possible after the event can be part of stimulating a repetition of the ‘right’ behaviour.
  • Making this even more ‘sticky’ should include praise from managers, the elevation of the good practice to become a fixed ‘safe system of work’, demonstrating the practice to others etc.
  • At the meeting, jointly look over your own risk assessments and method statements and ask yourselves if they could be improved in the light of how it actually went on the day.
  • ‘People support what they help to create’ – when adapting systems/procedures etc., try to include everyone, keep it simple and as jargon-free as possible
  • If you have a H&S Adviser, use them to facilitate an improvement session (but don’t expect them to spoon-feed you all the ‘right answers’!)