It is a fact of life for many a safety and health practitioner that you cannot always manage risk by being there “on the ground” to ensure controls are in place.
In a world of flexible working arrangements and remote workforces, an individual’s personal safety and health and how they manage risk in their working environment is increasingly in their own hands.
Personal responsibility and the competence of non-OSH professionals to manage risk are becoming ever more important parts of the equation.
How do we make it work? You could call it the “three Es”: educate, entrust and empower. Giving our colleagues the training and skills is the first step; putting our trust in their capacity to apply common sense and sound reasoning is the second; then we must empower them to make decisions – not absolving ourselves of responsibility or accountability but recognising that, as reasonable people, they can work with us to maintain safe and healthy workplaces.
This is easier said than done and the news pages of this magazine are a reminder that all the policies and written-down processes in the world will not stop incidents happening.
For me, if we are to rely more on the three Es, our colleagues’ understanding of “acceptable risk” is essential.
There are various theories on what constitutes acceptable risk. One argues a risk is acceptable if it falls below a level that is already tolerated. Another test is whether the public finds it acceptable.
How can we help our non-OSH colleagues in their day-to-day assessments of what risks are acceptable?
However interesting and thought-provoking this debate is, it leaves us with the challenge of how we can help our non-OSH colleagues in their day-to-day assessments of what risks are acceptable.
My day job is to look after more than 1,000 properties in the UK, overseeing the work of a team of around a dozen property managers. Needless to say, I cannot be at every building with every manager all the time.
Instead, I look to instill in my managers how they can manage the risks in their buildings effectively. We look at the basic requirements for what makes a building compliant. When I am satisfied they have the knowledge required to make an assessment, I entrust them to make sensible decisions about whether a risk is acceptable.
As a safety and health professional, I am making a judgement – on their level of knowledge as property managers and on their ability, as reasonable people, to decide how acceptable a risk is. For example, will that loose piece of masonry fall on shoppers in the street below or on a hedgerow in a fenced-off field? The former is unacceptable, the latter we could accept for now at least.
Their decisions help my organisation, with finite resources, to prioritise resources and plan maintenance and repairs.
To make this work, of course, clear communication is key. However, in a world that will never be risk-free and will always require realistic assessments of what controls need to be in place and when, a colleague’s or client’s grasp of acceptable risk can help us OSH professionals make the right decisions.