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Health or safety, why can’t we have both? by Matthew Dodson, barrister in Gateley’s Regulatory team

Recently, there has been an obvious shift of emphasis within the work place towards the ‘health’ of workers, arguably involving a shift away from the traditional focus on ‘safety’. This may be down to various factors, including safer working environments, an improved health and safety culture within the UK and a greater understanding of the workplace’s detrimental effects on long-term health following, for example, exposure to asbestos or asbestos-containing materials.

It is clear that recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) communications have had an increased focus on topics such as occupational diseases and the rising number of deaths from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer most commonly caused by exposure to asbestos. This is directly aligned with the latest figures released, which confirmed that fatal injuries at work have fallen to an all-time low. So, does this mean we can all consider that health is now becoming more important than safety? Or that safety issues are no longer the priority?

It may be a dangerous period for ‘safety’ if those views become adopted and accepted. The high standards achieved in the workplace are at risk of regressing if the consensus is that the spotlight is shining on matters elsewhere and safety is no longer a priority. There has always been an element of people rolling their eyes or switching off when ‘health and safety’ is mentioned – but it remains a key aspect of all our lives and should continue to be embraced in a positive way. It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that the processes and instructions that are now commonplace in the working environment have prevented countless injuries, protected lives and continue to provide people with the confidence to work freely in a safe environment. We will only continue to prevent incidents and protect workers if those processes and instructions are consistently imposed, periodically reviewed and improved. Despite the positive advances and a sense of satisfaction that the workplace is a far safer environment, there were still 133 workers fatally injured between April 2013 and March 2014. A stark reminder that safety at work must always be considered a priority.

One of the key areas that results in injury and sometimes death relates to working at height and workplace falls. The HSE states on its website that since 2001, an average of 50 people in the United Kingdom have died each year as a result of a fall from height and a further 8,702 have been seriously injured. How can this still be the case in 2014?

We are all familiar with the Work at Height Regulations which aim to prevent deaths and injuries. In basic terms, the Regulations can be summarised by three simple rules: firstly, avoid working at height where possible; secondly, if working at height cannot be avoided, select and use the right access equipment; and thirdly, minimise the impact of any potential fall. It may sound straightforward, but the guidance goes on to say that any work at height must be:-
• kept to a minimum
• property planned
• appropriately supervised
• carried out by someone who is trained and competent and able to complete the task safely.

So, why are a large number of people still getting injured? There will inevitably be lots of reasons behind the accidents: lack of training; being inadequately equipped; ignoring the rules and guidance; lack of supervision; insufficient resources and bad luck to name a few. There remain too many examples on the HSE website of incidents where easily preventable mistakes led to serious injury or death. From the scaffolder not being informed that there were fragile roof lights present and falling through them, to employers sending untrained workers up to clear the gutters in an unsafe manner, there will continue to be those that do not understand, or worse still, ignore the guidance.

The real question to consider is this: what can you do to manage the risks and avoid becoming a statistic or a case study on the HSE website? You will have noted that in both brief examples provided, the falls were easily preventable – a common theme in the aftermath of countless accidents.

My advice is simple: don’t over complicate the process and follow the guidance already laid out to you and your workers. To most, the risks of working at height are usually well known and the majority of necessary control measures are easy to apply but often taking the time to talk through these matters with those completing the work can be the difference between work being completed safely or the HSE knocking on the door. As employers and managers, you cannot be expected to eliminate all of the risk involved, but you are required to protect those involved by minimising it as far as is reasonably practicable. This includes conducting a risk assessment, ensuring that the work at height is accessed from a safe place, providing specific equipment to prevent falls and ultimately minimising the distance and consequences should a fall occur.

It is important to celebrate the positive news and improving figures regarding the ‘safety’ of workers within the UK and remember how we collectively achieved this and why safety continues to improve. But whatever we do in the future, there will continue to be too many injuries and deaths. So the message is simple: make sure that it does not involve you and your place of work. Whether you are working at height, completing manual handling tasks or ensuring that the right protective clothing is available and used, remind yourself and your colleagues of the potential for serious consequences – physically, emotionally and financially – that may occur if you fail to work safely.

We can all enjoy the benefits of working in a safer environment and strive to make the same improvements to the health of workers, but ultimately, the message is to remind yourself and those you work with to stay safe!

Article written by Matthew Dodson, a barrister in Gateley’s Regulatory team.

To find out more information about anything discussed in this article, please contact Matthew via MDodson@gateleyuk.com.

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