It’s a sad truth that talk of health and safety is, these days, often greeted with a groan or an eye-roll! It’s also true that there may have been some over-zealous, over-cautious and over-protective people in some organisations in the past. (Examples such as the school that banned a blind student from using her walking cane in case it presented a trip hazard, or the 34-year-old man who was ID’d in M&S for buying Christmas crackers spring to mind). But one thing remains absolutely true and of paramount importance: employees’ health, safety and welfare should be protected and safeguarded at all times.
The Labour Force Survey reported that 441,000 workers in Britain sustained an injury at work in 20/21 (HSE). A third of those were slips, trips and falls. Nearly one in five were as a result of handling, lifting or carrying. And 10% were a result of being struck by a moving object. Whilst it’s true that some workplaces are more hazardous than others (a manufacturing site is likely to be a higher risk than an office, for example), pretty much all those causes of injury could happen anywhere. Slippery-when-wet floor tiles occur anywhere and everywhere. A back injury can just as easily result from incorrectly lifting a paper bundle as from moving heavy machinery without due care. And any workspace with vehicles in the vicinity offers the risk of being struck by a moving object.
Basically, risks to health and safety, and reminders of procedures or protocols, should be communicated effectively on an ongoing basis in all workplaces. If an organisation has had an accident, or leaders have noticed a lackadaisical approach to safety from some complacent employees, this need becomes even more important and more urgent. Spending a little time and resource on this now is most definitely preferable to having injured staff or dealing with lawsuits.
Always consider your entire workforce, regardless of their shift patterns and usual place of work. Reaching your non-wired employees is just as important as getting through to your gig workers or remote colleagues. If you think there could be a weak link in your comms chain, book a health check and put that right now!
All communications should be two-way, and this is no different. It’s vitally important that our people feel that their concerns are heard and listened to. An open-door policy from leaders and nominated health & safety personnel is a great start. The recipient must show that they are actively listening and recording concerns, then following up on any valid risks with suitable remedial or preventative action. This entire process can be formalised and shared more widely if preferred or required, but the most important thing is that the raiser of concerns feels that they have been taken seriously and appropriate action taken.
As an aside, 8% of those 441,000 work injuries were from acts of violence. That’s the same number as for injuries from falls from a height. This means that concerns raised about threatening behaviour or other aggressions (from colleagues or customers) should also be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. This is not only from the perspective of the potential risk of physical harm, but also to safeguard our colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing.
As well as the open-door policy, employers can show their concern by running regular, anonymous safety surveys or interactive polling, and/or hosting a designated email address for safety concerns. Both options will help those who are less forthcoming or more anxious about speaking out about their worries.
Meetings and training
All workplaces should host regular meetings to cover health, safety and site risks. Higher-risk sites should host these even more frequently. Use these to share any issues, accidents, incidents, or near-misses. Similarly, new equipment, processes, personnel, or protocols should be covered in detail at these meetings. Drills, evacuation procedures and safety equipment should also be discussed regularly. It may be advisable to create a schedule for the various topics so that all are covered throughout the year, or every few months.
Never forget the importance of signage to warn employees about risks, be that a wet floor, toxic chemicals in storage, or damaged or dangerous equipment. This one is so obvious that it’s arguably more at risk of not happening! And, just as we must consider the diversity within our workforce when creating internal comms, we should consider any potential language or sight barriers when labelling hazards or signposting risks to health and safety. Is there a universal sign, icon or image that will work for all, regardless of native tongue? Will warnings in additional languages (including Braille?) be required? To know the makeup of your workforce, and to cater for all with your signage, is to offer maximum protection.
After an incident
If an organisation is unfortunate enough to have a significant accident or incident, it’s essential to communicate about this quickly, authoritatively, and sincerely. Of course, empathy or sympathy may also be required if injury resulted. Covering what happened, how and why, and what is being done to safeguard against it happening again is crucial. Doing this quickly is important to stop the rumour mill before it gets going, and to help allay fears from spreading across the workforce. A short video from a senior leader or H&S person is recommended to deliver the necessary detail with more warmth, empathy, authenticity, and reassurance than an email or other written communication will allow.
Health and safety comms is such a fundamental and well-trodden path that it’s too easy to overlook or do without much care or attention. But that, in itself, is a risk not worth taking, unless you want your colleagues cropping up as a statistic in next year’s Labour Force Survey or HSE data.