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Health and safety is essential but often neglected during an office fit out

Posted on November 2, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

According to the website of the Health & Safety Executive, electrical workers suffer approximately 1000 accidents and 25 deaths every year. This is a figure swelled by a number of accidents that could’ve been avoided with more stringent observation of safety practices and legislation and a different attitude to risk. Possibly more worrying than the original figure itself is the seeming acceptance of this risk by some workers as ‘part of the job’, as though it is inevitable at some point. In the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of the HSE website, one question reads: ‘Everyone gets a ‘belt’ from electricity every now and then, don’t they?’ This attitude seems a strange one to hold, especially when there are guides in place that, if followed correctly, should help to dramatically reduce the risk of such ‘belts’ occurring every ‘now and then’.

One such guide, the updated edition of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Wiring Regulations came into effect from July of last year. The guide updates how all commercial, domestic and industrial wiring installations have to be designed to comply with the new regulations (the 17th edition). As well as changing the design, specification and terminology of electrical installations, the 17th regulations also mean changes to inspection and testing methods and requirements. Electrical contractors and other workers in the electrical or building services industry will need to demonstrate that they are up to date with the requirements of BS 7671:2008.

But the legislation is only half the story. The issue for the HSE and other legislators and associations is how to shake up entrenched attitudes towards health and safety. This can be a particular issue for organisations with a dispersed and peripatetic workforce and especially when the workforce consists of young men who may have a possibly more easy-going attitude to risk typified by that of some of those working with electricity.

Then again, the problem can exist at an organisational level and especially when firms are trying to balance potentially conflicting objectives. For example, because the current economic downturn is having such a profoundly detrimental effect on so much of the UK, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it has already started to affect the way some companies view health and safety. This is particularly worrying because while losing your livelihood is one thing, losing your life or your health is far more important. And, for employers, the threat of litigation at this time could be worth far more than anything they might save.

Even when employers are ostensibly complying with their legal requirements there can be problems. To take just one item of equipment, sub-standard high-visibility clothing is putting workers’ lives at risk, according to a recent survey, which revealed that many retailers are selling fake or poor standard clothing that, in the worst cases, offered just over 1 per cent of the reflection required under the European Standard; according to the report ‘a piece of toilet paper would reflect more light than some of the clothes tested’.

But the problems aren’t limited to inadvertently purchased shoddy equipment. They are also complicated by the fact that even when the firm has been rigorous in learning about hazards and legislation and meeting all of its own obligations for risk assessments, supplied the correct equipment and trained staff, there is still a chance that people simply may not wear the correct equipment or may not use it properly.

There are a number of measures that can be taken to deal with this. First (and most certainly foremost), there must be a culture of health and safety that runs throughout the organisation. What this ensures in most cases is that the system of control becomes pervasive and self-perpetuating. The organisation can carry out all of its obligations, but people on the front line are the ones who by definition monitor how well people are working within that culture. Constant vigil is beyond the power of the core organisation, but it is well within the power of individuals at an operational level, who must form part of the control system.

Seemingly trivial issues can have a significant role to play in encouraging individuals to create this self-regulating culture. Employers must decide what equipment is necessary and, if so, must select suitable wear, provide it free of charge, and maintain it and replace it as necessary. In addition, employers must provide accommodation for the equipment; information, instruction and training about it and how to use it; and a system for employees to report defects and losses. This is an issue that continues to be of great concern because it goes much deeper than any current issues we may be facing as a result of the economic downturn. Certainly safety culture should not be sacrificed in an attempt to save a few quid, mainly because the health and safety of people is far more important but also because cutting corners is so obviously a false economy.

It is also counterproductive in terms of embedding a culture of health and safety within an organisation. For many firms working in facilities management, where operatives are often working without constant supervision, developing the right culture is the only way of ensuring compliance. Part of the solution is about allocating budgets appropriately and carrying out appropriate training, but it is also essential to win the hearts and minds of people.