Is health and safety just a paper exercise?

Be honest. What do you really think about health and safety? Do you see it as just a lot of paperwork for not a lot of benefit? If the answer is “yes” then you might actually be right! Health and safety management is notorious for generating huge amounts of paperwork. Checklists for this, signing sheets for that. By the time you’ve done, you’ve got a filing cabinet full of paper that no one wants to manage or even get involved with!

Here’s the catch though, the paperwork might just save your bacon. In the event of any legal action against your business, the paperwork that you have to hand will be the suit of armour that will defend you against the allegations made. So what do you do?

The key to any management system is finding a method of working that suits how you want to work. Make everything as easy to use as possible. The best advice we can give, though, is not to do everything yourself. Get your staff involved in the completion of the paperwork; this will not only get them more invested in health and safety, but will also increase the number of eyes looking critically at your workplace and reduce the amount of work that you have to do.

But what to record? As a minimum we would suggest that you think about documenting:

  • Workplace inspections – do these on a daily, weekly or monthly basis as is appropriate. If your business is a high risk workplace, you’d want to be doing the inspections more frequently than a lower risk environment such as an office.
  • Equipment checks – if you have manufacturing equipment, mobile plant, or lifting equipment then you should be undertaking pre-use checks. These aren’t onerous and are really visual inspections to ensure the item is working properly. They should not take all day – a few minutes at most.
  • Staff records – make sure you document employee inductions and training. Also, if you’re going to issue an employee with any specific items, such as PPE, then record what you’re giving them and have them sign to confirm receipt.
  • Risk assessments and Safe Systems of Work / Method Statements – These should identify what risks are in your workplace, how you want to control those risks, and how you want your staff to work. Get your staff to sign to confirm understanding of these documents.

For much of the above a simple checklist or signing sheet will suffice. And when you’re done, scan the paper copies and throw the originals away. There’s no need to keep vast amounts of paper when you can store them much more easily on a computer. This shouldn’t be burdensome though. It might take a bit of effort to set up, but once you’ve got it working it should be easy to manage.

And here’s an example of how it really will save your bacon:

Dave is a normal employee in a warehouse. One afternoon, Dave strays off a pedestrian walkway into the path of a fork lift truck. The truck collides with Dave causing a broken leg. Dave is off work and decides to sue the company for his injuries. His solicitors allege that the company is clearly negligent as they are not managing the safety of it’s employees.

In this example, the company had decided to try to implement some health and safety documentation. In conjunction with their insurers, they are able to provide evidence that the fork lift truck driver is competent to operate the machinery. They can demonstrate that they have assessed risks in their workplace, via risk assessments, and have put controls in place to manage an issues found. They can prove that Dave is aware of the risks as he has signed to confirm understanding of the risk assessment. They can also prove that Dave knew not to stray off pedestrian routes as this is in the company rules and safe systems of work, again that he has signed. Finally they can prove that the workplace was in a good, safe, condition as a workplace inspection was undertaken the previous week and no issues had been found.

When presented with all the evidence, the solicitors realised that whilst the accident had occurred, trying to prove negligence against the company was going to be difficult. They dropped the case.

Could you defend a similar claim? What if the HSE inspector visited your premises and asked for similar evidence?

Remember that in the eyes of the law, if you can’t prove that you did something then you didn’t do it. Merely saying that you did it isn’t enough. If you don’t think that you’re in a position to defend a claim, contact one of our advisers who will be happy to help you put some simple systems and processes into action.

By Ian Clayton CMIOSHH&S Manager

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