Stop the slide

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hse, Health, Occupational safety and health

Many minor incidents are unreported
Many minor incidents are unreported
With the Health and Safety Executive facing cuts to its budget, what will be the impact on the industry's safety record? Asks Paul Gander

An 'amoral calculator', it turns out, is not a device for automatically computing the returns achievable in dubious derivatives markets.

In fact, it is the term used by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for duty holders such as food and drink manufacturers which reason that the benefits of regulatory non-compliance outweigh the potential costs of compliance.

The non-reporting of incidents and injuries that can result from this type of approach is the dark underbelly of workplace health and safety. How many incidents go unreported? Well, perhaps not as many as a cynic might expect, according to HSE inspector and food and drink industry specialist Simon Parry.

"Firms may think they're likely to be inspected or investigated if they report an incident,"​ says Parry. "That's always been a challenge, but the situation has changed radically in the last 10 or 12 years. Now, we are much more likely to hear about it through other routes, from confidential whistleblowing to insurance firms, and from Citizens Advice to trade union sources."

When it comes to reported incidents which, for the HSE, include fatalities, major injuries and those which result in three or more days absence from work the trend in the industry remains a downward one. The 4,619 food manufacturing incidents reported in 200910 saw a 6% drop to 4,331 in 201011. For drinks manufacturing, the fall was even more impressive: 16%; from 450 to 379 in the HSE's latest figures.

"Overall, in the 20 years to 2011, the injury rate in food and drink has fallen by 56%,"​ says Parry. "We need to congratulate the industry."

For ease of comparison with other sectors, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) likes to use a 'per 100,000 workers' rate for counting serious incidents. On this measure, the current figure of 1,354 per 100,000 compares favourably with 2,700 in the early 1990s.

But in whatever terms they are couched, the figures tell a positive story. "Up to 1990, injuries in food and drink were increasing at an alarming rate,"​ Parry says. "Our 'Recipe for Safety' campaign has probably been the main driver in ensuring that injury numbers have fallen year-on-year."

Thanks to this and other interventions and joint initiatives, not only has the headline number of incidents fallen, the HSE points out, but the industry now "lags behind"​ a number of other sectors, from construction to waste management, in the number of cases logged.

On this basis, the accusation of 'amoral calculation' could arguably be levelled at the coalition government which recently decided, in its collective wisdom, to slash the HSE's budget by 35% over five years. No doubt, being able to play the populist 'cutting bureaucracy and red tape' card made its job easier.

A stoical Parry says: "There will technically be fewer proactive inspections, but there will be more reactive inspections. We will be targeting where the highest risk exists."

Prioritisation also takes place on the level of industry sub-sectors, with red meat, poultry and dairy singled out as being high risk, while others are seen as being "below the line".

This is not all set in stone, as Parry makes clear. Initiatives in the bakery sector, for instance, over the past 10 or 15 years have seen it promoted out of the HSE's high-risk category.

According to the FDF, this emphasis on just three specific sub-sectors is part of a much broader segmentation process at the HSE. Health and safety specialist James Marquette explains: "Since the budget cuts, the HSE is seeking to prioritise certain industries. Food and drink overall is not given the priority of, for instance, oil and gas or coal mining."

On top of this pressure on overstretched resources now comes again, thanks to the budget cuts a new Fee for Intervention (FFI) scheme. In force in England, Scotland and Wales since the beginning of October, the fee of £124 per hour can be imposed by a visiting inspector on any company in material breach of regulations.

Fee for Intervention

The HSE has sought to deflect criticism of this new revenue stream by highlighting the cap on how much of its recovered costs it will be able to retain. But, for many, this misses the point. "It's a sensitive issue,"​ says Marquette. "This is especially the case since the charge is not proportioned to the size of the business. The HSE has said there will be no preferential treatment for small- to medium-sized enterprises ​[SMEs]."

The FDF agrees that the industry has driven through major safety improvements over the past two decades. But as the various stakeholder organisations attempt to whittle away further at the statistics, the focus is inevitably and increasingly on SMEs. The FDF defines at least 96% of UK food and drink companies as SMEs.

Marquette says: "SMEs are less likely to have their own in-house health and safety adviser, they may instead use a contracted-in adviser to provide guidance now and then. In addition, they may not look at behavioural approaches to safety, ensuring that the correct procedures are followed, nor at the leadership development which backs that up."

Behavioural safety, as the term suggests, seeks to reduce the risk of incidents and injuries by changing behaviour. One prime example of this would be where five or six 'golden rules' are instilled into workers, not only for themselves, but to monitor in their colleagues. "They have to report any breaches by writing a note, and if something is not reported, this is followed up,"​ says Marquette. "It becomes part of the culture."

Parry believes that smaller firms are catching up with their larger counterparts when it comes to behavioural safety. "At first, it had the biggest uptake among the larger companies,"​ he says. "But evidence now suggests that SMEs are just as keen to pursue it."

He's equally bullish about safety provision for the growing number of 'vulnerable' workers, including temporary and seasonal staff. "The duty holder's responsibilities are no different in law for full-time, part-time or migrant workers,"​ he says.

At health and wellbeing consultancy Let's Get Healthy, md Maria Bourke admits that creating a good health and safety environment can be a problem where there is a substantial seasonal workforce. "But the last four or five years have seen more temporary workers returning year after year,"​ she says. "This helps with training and minimises accidents."

Small business challenge

Nonetheless, independent food sector health and safety consultant and trainer Jill Taylor says there are real challenges with the culture of many small firms. She admits that the majority of injuries could be classified as 'minor', but suggests that many of these go unreported. This may be because management does not encourage a reporting regime, or because staff and supervisors are unaware of their legal obligations.

Health and safety training at all levels of an organisation is key to making improvements, she argues. "Sadly, most small businesses fail to see the benefit. If workers are not aware of their rights, are working for an organisation where human resource issues may be as poor as its health and safety record, and are struggling to hold down a job in the current economic climate, then they may not make a fuss!"

So could the government's calculations regarding the HSE amoral or otherwise actually make it more difficult to grapple with the safety challenges of some SMEs, in particular? Will the combination of higher financial penalties plus, perhaps, a perception of reduced HSE vigilance tempt companies to pay less attention to safety and choose to report fewer incidents?

Parry at the HSE warns: "Once that attitude sets in, and those duty holders sit back and relax, they become 'amoral calculators'. But their employees aren't going to let that happen. It's a very dangerous thought process to enter into."

Stakeholders will no doubt scrutinise evolving incident and injury figures over the coming years more keenly than ever. It would be informative, too, to see them broken down by the size and type of firm, by injuries to temporary or permanent workers, and so on.

But maybe that is as unrealistic as wanting to know the number of incidents that go unreported and undetected.

Managing stress: the number one cause of sickness

"A lot of the multinationals have got major injuries down to zero, or to very low levels,"​ says Food and Drink Federation (FDF) health and safety specialist James Marquette. "Now they are paying more attention to occupational health."

These issues have found their way into the revised version of the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE's) Recipe for Safety publication. "Some food and drink manufacturers have brilliant schemes for stress and depression, for example,"​ says Marquette.

Maria Bourke, md of health and wellness consultancy Let's Get Healthy, says: "Stress is the top reason why people are off sick, and health and safety officers are increasingly doing risk assessments about possible causes, where three years ago it would have been back problems."

Her organisation has been training line managers in this area of expertise. "They need to be engaged,"​ she says. "If a worker says that he or she is anxious, is not performing or is depressed, step one is simply for that worker's manager to be able to respond confidently and know it is nothing to be scared of."

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