How best to encourage small businesses to raise their standards of protection is a perennial problem.
In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and trade bodies have tried everything from mobile phone apps to literature distributed at trade counters to channel messages about regulatory requirements and good practice to small contractors, especially those in construction.
In IOSH Magazine's November 2017 issue IOSH’s outgoing president Graham Parker describes the institution’s work with other safety and health bodies to promote better health risk management to SMEs via their insurers. He says if that fails, persuading the revenue authorities to include notes on the deductibility of personal protective equipment in the annual tax return might be another route.
At the British Safety Council’s conference last month, the HSE’s director for regulation David Snowball remarked that Lord Robens would be “spinning in his grave” at some contemporary interpretations of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which was the fruit of his committee’s 1972 report on health and safety regulation. I asked Snowball what he thought would trouble Robens and he pointed to the wide application of s 3 of the Act, which requires dutyholders to protect people other than their own employees, and which was only intended originally to have a narrower application to hazardous industries.
The concern among bigger businesses at their liabilities under s 3 from injuries to contractors has led to bureaucratic paper-based prequalification arrangements. This can burden small businesses which have to spend time and money gaining accreditation to multiple schemes.
But arguably, the requirement for organisations to insure those outside their employment but on their premises or working on their behalf has had a beneficial effect overall. It helped contribute to the exponential reduction in serious accidents in the UK in the latter decades of the 20th century.
Bigger businesses questioning smaller ones on their skills, knowledge and experience and ability to carry out any task from plant maintenance to drain rodding with minimal risk to themselves and others must have raised awareness of regulatory requirements among many of those smaller contractors.
At worst, all this does is foster a mentality among SMEs that this is just a hoop they have to jump through to win some types of work, with no sense of its real importance. There is evidence of this in construction where builders will sometimes offer domestic clients a choice of tariffs: a cheaper option with little protection for the workers or a more expensive one where they work to the standards required of them when they subcontract for larger firms and have to provide scaffolding instead of ladders.
To change that mindset, the smaller operators have to be convinced of the benefits to themselves of maintaining good OSH standards, not just in pleasing third parties.
Safety and health practitioners have a part to play in that education. The process of checking contractors are fit to work on your behalf could involve not just filtering out those with inadequate certification, but explaining to them why good safety and health is valuable in its own right.
The message won’t always stick but it is another way to promote higher standards in a stratum of business that has proved hard to reach.