Small element of risk

Smaller firms are at the forefront of a softly-softly campaign to improve safety

Small companies are a thorn in the side of health and safety enforcers. Research shows that they are nearly twice as likely to have accidents as larger firms.

Launching the Health & Safety Executive’s small firms strategy last week, Frank Davies, Health & Safety Commission chairman, made it clear the authorities want to address the issue. Improved information and communication will be at the heart of the campaign.

`Many small firms do not know what we do, how we can help, or how to get in touch with us,’ he said.

The higher incidence of accidents in small firms is also having a knock-on effect on larger companies because of contracting out.

`Almost half the three million small firms work for larger firms as contractors or suppliers,’ said Joan Borley, the HSE’s head of small firms.

As more non-core work has been passed to subcontractors and suppliers and major manufacturers run down their stock levels, a greater element of risk has entered the supply chain.

Crucially this risk has spread to the areas of health and safety. It now means that if a supplier has a serious accident, and is unable to complete an order, a whole run of production is disrupted, and millions of pounds in business could be lost.

Traditionally, larger companies have the resources to pay for full- time health and safety officials, while smaller companies tend to let general managers take care of the issues and time is often limited.

`What managers might do is worry that they have safety issues to solve but they don’t know who to go to,’ said Borley.

`Some are worried that if they ring up the HSE, they’ll get the inspectors.’

The HSE wants to make life easier for smaller firms with more accessible information. To this end it has set up a free, confidential hot line, where companies can get access to what they want to know without the fear of a visit from an inspector.

The HSE is also motivating larger firms to be more supportive, by passing on relevant information to trade associations or directly to suppliers.

`Many of the requirements of the new regulations are perhaps not that new,’ said Borley. `The Health and Safety At Work Act of 1974 required them to do in effect what the 1993 six-pack regulations wanted them to do.’

A problem for many small firms is that many had come into existence since 1993 and had not been exposed to the campaign to implement the new laws.

Another part of the HSE’s strategy is a research programme carried out with large companies to establish how they can help. The Rimington Project is named after its leader, John Rimington, the former director general of the HSE. It will report in May.

The Federation of Small Business says the research will be welcomed by its 96,000 members.

`A lot of large employers contract out the dangerous work, or the work they’re not even clear about themselves,’ cautioned Jacqueline Jeynes, the federation’s health and safety spokeswoman.

Small companies want clear information from the HSE as much as help from the big players.

The plan to launch guides under sector specific categories, rather than general safety issues, would summarise information more clearly and get the attention of the sort of people who need to be targeted.

By Melanie Tringham