As a health and safety manager, it’s frustrating when near misses or accidents occur because someone took an unnecessary risk.
Whether it’s because someone failed to use the right equipment, cut corners, or was simply cavalier with their own safety and the safety of those around them, the consequences of risk-taking can be dire.
Your first response in these situations, understandably, might be to punish the person responsible for choosing to take that risk. But, if you look deeper, you might find that things aren’t quite that straightforward.
The Human Factor
In my twenty years as a risk management consultant, I’ve come to understand that – as with most things – the most unpredictable part of safety is the people involved. I call this the ‘Human Factor’, and it’s one of the first things I communicate to new clients when I start working with them.
Take cars, for example. Over the past few decades, carmakers have invested combined trillions of pounds into making their vehicles as safe as possible, implementing a plethora of fancy gadgets to aid drivers in getting from A to B safely. But for all the money, time, and science, all it takes is one person not paying attention for a split second to cause a terrible accident.
And it’s the same with health and safety at work: all it takes is one person deciding to go off-script for an incident to occur.
Unfortunately, as easy as it is to view all risk-takers as mavericks with no care for themselves or others, this view fails to consider how complex human beings can be.
To implement truly effective safety procedures, you need to understand the people you work with, their place in the system, and the reasons they might take a risk at work. Are they just being willfully ignorant, or are there other factors at play?
There are a few types of risk-takers
Let’s start with the stereotypical risk-taker. Usually overconfident, this person thinks they’re above the law and invincible. We’ve all heard the adage, ‘this is the way I’ve done it for years. Why should I change now?’
They might think ‘health and safety has gone mad’, too. But, it’s their way or the highway, which means they’ll take every opportunity to ‘forget’ their PPE or grab a ladder to ‘sort something quickly’.
It can be challenging to know how to handle these types of risk-taker. You might catch them on their phones during safety briefings, and one-to-ones with them usually end in an argument or a half-hearted, unconvincing ‘OK mate’.
I generally advise against punishing people when things go wrong, as it only leads to pushback and a very negative view of safety. However, suppose after reasonably explaining the reasons behind the procedures, they continue to take risks, putting themselves and others in danger. In that case, your only option might be to get upper management involved for a serious talk and potential dismissal.
This type of risk-taker is why involving health and safety in the recruitment process is so vital. Managers should be doing everything they can to ensure that new hires will (or can) fit in well with the existing safety culture.
We have the Time Saver
This person will cut corners to get a job done quicker, skipping safe choices in risk assessments or using an inferior form of access system because it takes less time to set up. All the risks they take are in service of getting things done quickly. There could be two reasons behind this.
One, the person wants to get home faster. They might not think much of a few missed steps here and there, so it can be as simple as taking them to one side and explaining the danger they’re putting themselves and others in.
Interestingly, they might actually have some good ideas about improving efficiency. By working together with them, you could identify areas where time could be saved in a safe manner. But, again, punishment should be a last resort.
More seriously, it could be a sign that employees are under pressure to do their job quicker, usually from upper management. All the well-intentioned safety procedures in the world won’t do a thing if employees are all but told to put themselves at risk or lose their job. This is unacceptable and should be raised with management immediately.
If you feel that this is happening in your organisation and your concerns are being ignored, you can anonymously report safety failings to the HSE.
And the Innocent
When safety breaks down, it’s important to ask yourself whether the person in the middle of it all is actually at fault or if the problem lies elsewhere – which is more likely.
A near-miss occurs because someone was in the wrong area, not using the right equipment, or because a machine inspection wasn’t undertaken. It’s possible that the Maverick was involved, or the Time Saver was looking to get out by lunch, but it’s equally likely that the person involved didn’t know.
Businesses are a complex web of constant communication, and the biggest organisations can potentially have thousands of people working closely together. So first, think about how many emails get missed each day; now, consider how many of those emails contain important information.
Although health and safety is, at its heart, just common sense, there can be a lot of information to take in. For example, it’s entirely possible the person involved in the incident missed a new safety briefing updating everyone on the latest maintenance timetable or how a specific type of PPE is now required.
This once again comes down to treating employees like people rather than numbers. A 97% take-up rate on the latest online safety sessions sounds fine, but in a business of 500 people, that’s 15 potential risk takers out in the world who might not even know they’re about to do something wrong.
It would be best to make health and safety communication as personal as possible to get your workers involved. You can be sure that everyone is on board and, more importantly, understands why procedures are being implemented.
I know this is easier said than done in larger businesses. Still, the onus is on both safety managers to communicate the resources they need to ensure this level of communication and on management to provide the resources requested. The initial cost might be higher, but trust me, it’s far lower than the potential cost of having several ticking time bombs out on site.
It’s about people
It can be easy to get wrapped up in safety bulletins and statistics. But, ultimately, health and safety is about people. So understanding your employees and why they might put themselves and others at risk should be every risk management expert’s priority. Only then can you put the right safety systems in place.
I’ve been a safety consultant for more than two decades, and in that time, I’ve seen every type of risk-taker there is. So for impartial and independent advice on better managing and coaching people as a safety manager, get in touch.