One Size Doesn’t Fit All Anymore

Employers and their HR people have been tested to the limit with all the recent challenges, in particular the ‘COVID’ pandemic.

So during times like these, ‘Health and Safety’ (‘H&S’) can seem like the least of anyone’s concerns – unless you also include the possibility of employers using their H&S Advisors to craft their pandemic response or improve their management of stress and lack of wellbeing.

H&S and HR

However, for employers who are thinking past the immediate crisis, this situation calls for more close cooperation between H&S and HR. Unfortunately my experience over the years doesn’t shine an optimistic light on that happening anytime soon. There’s no-one to blame – this is just a consequence of the different roles that H&S and HR have had to adapt to over time.

Many HR colleagues are in challenging jobs where they are bombarded with difficult inter-personal problems and asked for clear guidance on what approach the employer should take. This naturally leads to the employee being seen as the awkward one – particularly as the initial approach to HR is often from an exasperated line manager.

Conversely, H&S – even though paid by their clients in similar ways to HR – often find themselves supporting the cause of the employee (as they’re the ones who are most likely to get injured).

Homeworking as an example

The traditional model of an employer keeping an ever-present eye on what employees are up to during the working day has – for those that are able to work from home – been disrupted.

Of course, ‘homeworking’ has been steadily growing over the pre-pandemic years but has had a rapid accelerant added in the form of the virus. Many tech companies will have made the transition to working from home fairly painlessly, but for other companies this must have involved constant juggling of preferences and priorities.

Bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive who are responsible for dishing out advice to employers have tried their best. However, because of the lack of employer control in someone’s personal accommodation – and maybe a lack of resource – this is always going to be a ‘fudge’ where you will have to settle for doing your best.

Quite often, the HSE Homeworker advice and Safety and Health Practitioner seem all to willing to put onerous duties onto employers without any thought for how they can be effectively carried out e.g. inspecting employee’s accommodation to see if they are fit-for-purpose.

And many of the decisions about homeworking involve a variety of different players within the employers’ organisation. For example whoever is in charge of overall ‘Operations’ and the delivery of goods or services, the Finance/Accounts section, I.T. providers, plus internal or external HR or H&S Advisers.

So decisions as to whether to allow continued working from home aren’t simply a question of answering ‘what are the basic H&S legal requirements?’.

Grey…grey…and more grey

In fact, there seems to be an ever-increasing number of issues impacting the traditional approaches to H&S, such that the number of discretionary ‘grey areas’ that society is throwing up can become overwhelming.

As well as ‘homeworking’, over the last decade there have been:

  • Shifts towards ‘zero-hours’/flexible/’on-demand’ working
  • People working to the demands of an app, often working remotely in a variety of different locations
  • People working as part of a mixed team of employed/self-employed and contractor organisations
  • Society shifting away from paperwork to E-Systems – often involving ‘signing-off’ on a document which would be impossible to read through
  • Employers choosing workplaces that have been set up to take building facilities responsibilities off their shoulders
  • ‘Companies’ who are actually just one person with lots of contacts with external contractors

Living with uncertainty

No-one likes to live in a world where everything is uncertain and all the decisions are pushed back onto you, but with the possibility of censure if you get it wrong.

Employers who are unsure as to what decisions to make will naturally crave ‘solid rules’ that they can work to.

And yet, H&S consultants are only too aware that many of these pre-existing rules don’t exist, and ‘good practices’ adopted by others remain hidden – unless you happen to be lucky enough to have come across it.

Consultants may also be wary of advising the adoption of excellent standards lest they be accused of ‘going way over the top’ or creating bureaucratic difficulties for their Clients.

Meanwhile, those who offer advice (e.g. HSE, Local Authorities, Industry Associations etc.) can often seem to complicate matters by throwing the kitchen sink at the issues. Endless bullet points such as ‘employers need to consider XYZ’ with a good splattering of caveats – ‘where necessary’; ‘in proportion to the risk’, ‘in consultation with the workers’ etc.

The answer is: don’t expect an answer

One thing is for sure, the age of the ‘know-it-all’ H&S Consultant is over in these new working environments and varied working arrangements.

Grey areas abound and there isn’t a rule-book telling you exactly what to do in each situation.

Unlike with airline pilots where intense training followed by strict adherence to rules and checklists are needed for flight safety, many of the rules for working will have to be developed ‘on the hoof’. You wouldn’t expect an airline pilot to be faced with a blank box to fill in their own thoughts about ‘other hazards’ and another one for ‘additional controls’ prior to taking off. But these blank boxes are precisely what are needed as part of a H&S general activity risk assessment.

Still Useful

Just because firm rules aren’t always available and the risk landscape has changed over time, doesn’t mean that H&S Consultants’ skills aren’t still very useful.

Firstly, ‘compliance’ with existing rules can still be the bedrock – after all, there’s no point in wandering around lost for years in the grey areas when you can start by nailing down the standards that do exist. Once you’ve quickly established what you need to do to be broadly ‘compliant’, then the same techniques can be used to tackle anything outside of pre-existing rules.

Secondly, H&S consultants tend to be comfortable with writing things down clearly and explicitly, and expressing themselves in hazard and risk terms – this is our ‘bread and butter’ after all. Part of this is the capturing the good ideas and crafting them into new sensible, practical safe working methods. In this way,  the organisation is demonstrating that it is learning and adapting to these new challenges.

Next, this will only be possible if you accept that a process of monitoring and reviewing will be necessary in order to develop sensible risk control measures. Unfortunately as we’re all human this is the part that is most often missed out. Essentially we think ‘Phew! The job is over, and we can go home (or onto the next job)’ and don’t like to add in the final step of: ‘Now let’s see what went well, and what we can improve on next time’.

Lastly, a modern consultant will have put considerable time and effort into using the latest technology to help track things – it is very easy to get completely lost when tracking actions by email or endless coloured comments in ‘Word’ or ‘Adobe’, so some experience in collaboration software can be very useful to Clients.