First, let’s shoot the Elf!

Published:  14 October, 2010

Standfirst: The Health and Safety industry has become the target of vilification and derision. Its salvation is in helping small firms understand that health and safety is not just about compliance, but business success and a moral imperative, argues Karen Baxter*. It happens at every networking event, when I answer the dreaded ‘So what do you do?’ question. “Oh ho, ‘Elf and Safety’”, they chortle (as if I haven’t heard that one before), “the people who stop kids playing conkers”. Well no, we don’t actually. Generally speaking, it’s the insurers who stop people doing things by putting in hundreds of unnecessary clauses which might, at some time in the future, avoid them paying a claim, together with the under-trained, confused and unconfident managers who have to go along with it. No joke More importantly, why are we making a joke at all? If a plane crashed and killed 180 people, we wouldn’t be having a good laugh and calling it ‘Sky Pixie Syndrome’. Yet that’s the number of people who die every year in accidents at work, not counting the 246,000 that get injured, or the estimated 1,700 who die while driving on business. The Health and Safety industry has become the acceptable butt of everyone’s humour, partly because the media just loves a story about old people being refused doormats in case they trip over them. It’s also because we have allowed people to believe that Health and Safety is about speaking in impenetrable acronyms, filling in reams of paperwork and adopting a ‘belt and braces’ approach to everything, in place of good old common sense. Currently there are around 4.7 million small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) employing nearly half the workforce. They are present in all industry sectors, including those associated with the highest risks of injuries and ill-health. I would argue that the Health & Safety sector is still struggling to get to grips with what this huge number of employers needs from us. When you have to be worrying about whether you are going to be able to pay your employees this month, or take a salary yourself; when it’s 2am and you’re just getting around to doing your accounts, then worrying about your Health and Safety procedures is not top of your list – and we have to understand that. Acronym hell Even the small business managers who make the effort soon find themselves mired in acronym hell. I read an article recently that contained 32 different acronyms, and not just the ones we’re mostly familiar with like H&S and DWP, but really clever ones like CHaSPI (Corporate Health and Safety Performance Indicator), SBTAF (Small Business Trade Association Forum), and LACORS (Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services). HSE research shows that most small and medium-sized businesses do want to comply with health and safety. It also shows that most believe they are complying although realistically, research asking someone to incriminate themselves, even anonymously, is likely to be flawed. The HSE itself faces the problem of being both poacher and gamekeeper; there is a genuine fear among small business owners of asking the HSE anything, in case it results in an inspector knocking on the door. We in the industry know that isn’t the case but the hard-pressed entrepreneur doesn’t. That’s not to say that small businesses want to flout the laws. It’s disparaging to say that because a business is small, it wants to get away with as much as it can. The issue is that the laws are the same whether you employ two people or two hundred so there is a disproportionate burden on small companies. Within the H&S sector, there has developed a tendency to use these laws as a big stick. Consultancies looking to make a fast buck have resorted to scare tactics, supported by an ever-helpful media. For small firms, therefore, health and safety has become a ‘must do’ compliance issue rather than a culture that can genuinely deliver business success. Three drivers For small business people there are three drivers to adopting better H&S practices: compliance, business cost, and moral cost. Far too much is made of the first and not enough of the second and third. Every death or serious injury at work leaves a trail of tragedy in its wake. No one who has been involved in causing harm to someone at work ever wants to go through it again. There is a moral imperative to try to get this right. It also makes sense from a business standpoint. The benefits of an effective H&S culture are well documented: accidents avoided, fewer working days lost, improved recruitment and staff retention, improved customer confidence, reduced insurance premiums, and the ability to tender for large corporate and government contracts. As if that wasn’t enough, working in a healthy and safety-conscious environment can have a hugely positive impact on staff morale, attendance and productivity. Common sense tells us this is true but when it comes to dealing with the law, then a certain level of competence and confidence is also needed. A manager who has been given the responsibility without support and advice will inevitably take a ‘belt and braces’ decision and that’s where Health and Safety falls into disrepute. But there is a different way. Take driving as an example. Most of us do it and we don’t need to keep looking at the manual. We know that to drive correctly we need to put our minds to it and stay in the moment. It’s about practical, simple actions, not process. But we can only do it well if we were taught in the first place and understand the need to comply with the rules of the road. Excuses Finally, the Health and Safety industry has to stop making excuses. It is vital to everyone who goes to work – employer or employee. In what other sector (apart perhaps from medicine) would you have the potential to save 180 lives a year and protect 246,000 people from injury? We have to learn to communicate, especially to small companies, what our business is about and that by making health and safety an enterprise-wide culture, small firms can reap enormous benefits. Together, we need to shoot the Elf and return ourselves to Health.

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