Still safety in smaller numbers

Sue Stuckey finds out that leaner can mean safer. On other pages we look at managing a complex multinational alliance making forklift trucks; plus help in overcoming the obstacles of continuous improvement

Companies may be leaner and fitter in the aftermath of an employment shakeout. But are they safer? And is the workforce healthier? Or, since job cuts tend to hit support functions hardest, have health and safety standards fallen by the wayside?

David Ashton, the Health and Safety Executive’s operations unit director, set out to test this hypothesis in a £50,000 research project.

The results are illuminating. Contrary to popular belief, companies appear to be committed to maintaining standards and even improving on the performance of former specialist departments.

The 10 unnamed companies which took part in the project, carried out by London consultancy Entec UK, were drawn from a representative spread of industries including rail, nuclear, chemical, power and drinks manufacture. All had been involved in extensive downsizing. All had devolved health and safety management strategies. And all had improved health and safety performance.

The lessons learned from the research form the basis of an extensive guide to good practice*.

Some firms took longer to get there than others, though as a result, most could point to the commercial benefits of losing fewer days through sickness and accidents. Nationally, industry squanders vast sums – around 2.5% of GDP – through accidents, dwarfing losses from industrial disputes.

Companies differed in their approach to the management of health and safety during downsizing. Those that realised immediately the need to make provisions benefited. For those whose provisions were an afterthought, the exercise was more prolonged and costly.

The training of line managers to take on additional health and safety responsibilities was also a key pointer to success. According to Ashton: `Our survey shows that if you are systematic and invest in training you can get substantial health and safety improvements. But if the human capacity isn’t there then you are whistling in the dark.’

Active management is the cornerstone of accident prevention policy at Leyland Trucks. `We once had one of the worst records in the UK motor industry,’ says Alan Lark, health, safety and environmental manager. In a typically bad year there were 65 reportable accidents, 8,000 hours lost production and 40 employers’ liability claims. Last year there were just three lost-time accidents.

Dr Jim Hawkesley, health and safety adviser at ICI, says the role of the health and safety specialist today is to help line management discharge its responsibilities. `The thrust of our improvement is to emphasise that safety is everybody’s responsibility.’ Accident rates at ICI have fallen by 20% a year for five years. `Where management at the highest level takes an active interest and makes it clear what is expected, that cascades down the line.’

High safety standards are paramount at Nuclear Electric. `To ignore it would threaten the whole future of our business,’ says Jeremy Weston, director of health and safety. Yet maintaining high standards has not been easy. During the five years leading up to privatisation, the company shed around one third of its 14,000 workforce.

But commercial pressures have not been allowed to interfere with good health and safety management; in fact it has improved greatly. For example, staff exposure to even so-called safe levels of radiation has halved while the lost-time accident indicator shows a two-thirds improvement.

Commercial performance has improved. Weston sees that as significant and agrees with the HSE that there are strong links between health and safety performance and running a successful business. There is a real symbiotic relationship between doing the right things for commercial performance and improving safety,’ he says. `We have not found the conflict people worry about.’

At electricity supplier PowerGen, Nick Burraston, head of occupational health and safety, takes a similar line. A progressive accident prevention regime involves monitoring accidents and reporting them openly. Over five years the accident rate has fallen by 91%. `We recognised right from the beginning that health and safety should be kept safe from the effects of downsizing and the privatisation of the company.’

Burraston emphasises that good communications are vital. `You have got to get everybody to believe that health and safety is important, so you embark on a programme of awareness.’

* Best Practice Model – Health and Safety Management of Major Organisational Change ISBN 07176 1302X. Price £25, available from HSE Books, Sudbury and booksellers.

{{Health tips for downsizing