Despite the fact that small–and medium–sized enterprises (SMEs) account for 98% of food businesses and employ 40% of the total workforce, “we know very little about what is happening on the ground in terms of health and safety”, said Melanie Leech, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
Speaking at the recent Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s food and drink manufacturing conference, Leech said it was vital that all organisations, including the FDF, reached out beyond their core membership to improve health and safety in smaller firms.
“It is often hard to get them involved and they rarely have a dedicated health and safety champion … we have a responsibility to make SMEs more aware of their responsibilities around occupational health,” she told the event in Oxford.
‘Occupational health pledge’
She said the FDF would next year launch an occupational health ‘pledge’ for SMEs to commit to. They will then receive help to improve their offerings to staff.
A free best practice workshop will be held in September 2014.
Leech highlighted Warburtons and Britvic as two big firms with good occupational health programmes in place, which incorporated general health and wellbeing initiatives – such as subsidised and healthy staff meals – alongside day–to–day health and safety regimes.
She said this was increasingly important because the sector had an ageing workforce.
However, she voiced fears that recent cuts to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) budget and the introduction of a Fee for Intervention (FFI) cost recovery scheme – which came into effect in October 2012 – could hamper the industry's efforts to make improvements.
Under FFI, those who break health and safety laws are liable for recovery of HSE’s related costs, including inspection, investigation and taking enforcement action.
‘Pitted them against businesses’
Leech said this risked breaking the relationship where HSE inspectors were valued for their advice and instead pitted them against businesses.
However, Philip White, head of operation policy at HSE, said the changes had not affected HSE’s approach.
“I’ve heard lots about how this will drive HSE in the wrong direction but it has not changed our priorities or enforcement approach,” he said, adding it was not a cash cow for the organisation because most of the fines went to the Treasury.
“The average fee has been £484 and only 2.5% of them have been queried,” he added.