House of hazards
When domestic accidents are a major contributor to sick leave, shouldn’t OSH practitioners do more to promote home safety?
“Relentless and largely unnoticed” is how Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) chief executive Errol Taylor recently characterised the rise in serious accidents at home and in leisure time. He went on to point out that this increase had happened in parallel with huge strides in road and workplace safety based on “scientific, evidence-based approaches to accident prevention”, and appealed for greater effort to address home and leisure risks.
It invites the question of how much responsibility employers and occupational safety and health professionals should take for employees’ domestic activities.
“What we always hear is how we want our workers going home at the end of the day exactly the way they came in; we don’t want anybody hurt,” says Larry Wilson, vice-president of SafeStart, an international behavioural safety training company. “But we should also be making a point of telling all our workers that we want them to come back to work the same way they left it.
“Companies and health and safety professionals have to get their heads around this idea. If you really care about safety and don’t talk about safety as being 24/7, that’s a big hole. It’s good that you’ve improved workplace safety but why not take the tools and techniques out more widely?”
Jonathan Hughes, an IOSH vice-president and head of SHQ training at consultancy Turner & Townsend, suggests unwitting complacency about the home environment can creep in. “When you compare many workplaces – whether in manufacturing, construction or utilities – with the average comfortable home with carpets and a sofa plus some lawn at the back, you’d never think the home is such an unsafe environment.”
Yet the figures are stark. In 2016-17, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 137 workers died in workplace accidents, the second lowest number on record. “When you contrast this with RoSPA statistics, which suggest 6,000 people die every year in home accidents, that’s a staggering figure,” Hughes says. “If you use that data to come up with a rough ballpark figure then, by lunchtime on 8 January 2018, as many people had died in a home accident as will in the whole year at work.”
He also contrasts home safety with road transport, which accounted for 1,792 fatalities in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics: “You could argue you’re three and a half times more in danger in the home than on the roads,” he says. “Overall, if you consider what we do on the roads in terms of vehicle safety and the array of controls we put in at work, in the home environment there’s almost nothing.”
There is an obvious financial argument for employers to become involved in promoting home safety. If an employee is off work for any period because of an accident at home, key skills may be lost or projects held up, or there will be cover to arrange and pay for. Equally, if a child has an accident, parents may be off work for days or even weeks or months. This is similar to the argument to promote corporate wellbeing programmes, many of which reach well beyond the workplace to include wider lifestyle choices and habits.
Your home is your castle. If employers take a lecturing approach... people are going to switch off and may even object
As well as the bottom-line incentive, there are many less tangible benefits associated with a more encompassing view of safety.
“Safety isn’t just about personal protective equipment [PPE], guarding and engineering,” says Wilson. “It’s also about habit and skills: learning to move your eyes first before you move your hands, body or car. This might seem obvious but it’s not a habit most people have. But if you change how people [act and think], you won‘t just change it for work – it will be for everywhere. The habits and skills people need for personal safety are 24/7.”
One of the most likely barriers to home safety promotion is a reluctance to interfere in employees’ personal lives, which Wilson finds is more prevalent in Europe than in North America and especially in Latin America. However, he contends: “If I said [to an employer], so you’re unwilling to help your workers at home, they would say, ‘Of course not, I’d certainly be willing to help them’. It’s not about trying to tell people what to do or direct their lives; it’s simply about trying to prevent them or their kids being injured.”
He acknowledges that discussions on off-job safety may repel some employees but makes the simple point that “there is also a risk some of them will get seriously hurt if you don’t. If you do nothing, you’re not going to help anyone. But say only 10% respond and get involved, you’re still affecting those who want the opportunity.
“It’s all about getting a balance. The last thing anyone wants is someone coming in with a clipboard and hard hat and talking about taking risk assessments at home. Using phrases like home safety policy or method statement or safe systems of work will turn people off. Instead, it’s more about subtly getting a proportionate safety message across and making it relevant.”
For Ian Howden, senior health, safety and environment officer at medical equipment manufacturer Sekisui Diagnostics (UK), the method of conveying the advice is vital. “As with any workplace communication, you need to look at how you are delivering the information to get the best reception and take-up. Your home is your castle. So if employers take a lecturing approach with wagging fingers, saying ‘you must do this, you must do that’, people are going to switch off and may even object.”
In Wilson’s experience the best way to start is with the basics that nobody could object to, such as encouraging workers to wear PPE if they are using tools at home and offering to share the technology from work, such as safety glasses, ear plugs or gloves. “You don’t have to give everyone a pair,” he says, “just make it clear you’re happy to make them available if they want them or are going to be doing some jobs at home.”
The last thing anyone wants is someone coming in with a clipboard and hard hat and talking about risk assessments
For the next step, Wilson advocates going a bit further, depending on upcoming training or safety programmes. “Start encouraging them in terms of skills and decisions,” he says. “If you are doing behavioural training, for instance, encourage them to use that off-job as well as on.”
Hughes often includes home-based information in his workplace training courses covering everything from work at height and electrical safety to asbestos and manual handling. Control of substances hazardous to health awareness training could be a good place to start.
“The most dangerous part of any home for children is the kitchen,” he says. “Common things they can find in cupboards include gel tablets, bottles of bleach, toilet cleaners, disinfectants, white spirit, thinners and paints.” Controls on hazardous substances in the workplace are stringent and include data sheets, risk assessment, storage and PPE. In the home, by contrast, there are few controls. “So when you’re talking about storage or handling, you could easily bring in some simple home tips.”
Fire safety is another area where it is easy to refer to the home. Hughes always encourages delegates on fire safety courses to Google “free fire home safety check”. This will put people in touch with their local fire and rescue service which will arrange free home visits, give advice and provide new smoke detectors if necessary.
Trainer Denise Lysaght from Your Housing Group also discusses home safety during fire marshal training, including asking delegates about their fire plan. “We bounce ideas off each other,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be complicated but if you have elderly or disabled relatives or young people in the house, it changes the dynamics in the event of a fire, so you need to have a plan.”
She says the feedback has always been positive on fire and other training. Another tip is to collect stories from the press, such as overheating domestic appliances or overloaded phone chargers and sockets. “I find this really helps to hammer home the message.”
Seasonal campaigns are particularly effective for promoting off-job safety. “If you’re delivering a summer training course, you could look at music festivals,” suggests Hughes, citing deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from disposable barbecues brought into tents or camper vans overnight.
In a similar vein, Wilson describes a campaign SafeStart ran with a steel company in the US. “We called it ‘100 Days of Summer’ and started off with music from the film Jaws, focusing on what we are afraid of versus what we should be afraid of,” he explains.
To support initiatives, Wilson suggests providing specific information for employees to take home to their families. This may be conveyed on leaflets, key fobs that bear safety messages, DVDs or links to downloads – perhaps aimed at teenagers or children. Another idea is a children’s colouring contest with a safety theme.
“We started [producing materials for families] at SafeStart after we got guys coming up and saying, ‘I’d like to teach this to the kids; can we take a flip chart home or do you have something I could show them? That’s where our original take-home stuff all started.”
Wilson adds: “You don’t turn safety on and off, so people often come back to work and act even safer as a result of talking about and teaching this stuff to their family and kids. It helps retention, helps people learn and tends to cement their commitment too.”
The work and out-of-work elements of good safety can complement each other.
“Throwing into sessions aspects people can take home – even to doing the ironing and cleaning, or bending to pick up children – into sessions really helps to engage people,” says Lysaght. “Unfortunately, health and safety has the capacity to be a dull and boring subject but if you liven it up a bit and make it personal it makes so much difference. You’re also saying, ‘I’m not just concerned about you guys as employees, I’m concerned about you and looking at it from your point of view’.”
Howden agrees that discussing off-job safety has the potential to improve the reputation of safety and health and reduce negative associations.
“It’s about skill building,” he says. “We’re doing general safety awareness building, with the hope that people will see safety as something relevant to them rather than something forced on them. Our intention is that they see safety as useful.”
He also believes providing home advice can improve wider engagement, but it has to be at the right time and delivered in the right way to the right people. “There is the ‘butt out of my private life’ school of thought and the other approach of ‘all information is of interest, please tell me more’. For this reason, I’m mindful to keep the frequency and content useful but lightweight.”
Some initiatives have worked better than others. The most successful was a first aid course aimed at off-job use. “It was voluntary, onsite, on paid-for time and only short (an hour), and the trainer was good at his job,” Howden says. The brief was not an appointed person course. “It was purely about what to do if you come across a friend or family member choking or with a problem requiring CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] – take these tips with you and maybe one day you’ll help someone.
“We were very clear it was not work, but it was paid for by work, was time away from the desk and was clearly instantly relevant to daily life. The take-up was 80% and feedback was very positive. Everyone who attended waxed lyrical about how great it was and urged us to do it again.”
Howden says a successful course resonates with the attendees and sparks their imagination, so they feel they could use the content to make a difference. “The first aid course came from the CSR [corporate social responsibility] team rather than from the safety side. But there was still an assumption by some that we were training people to function on site. So we did reiterate that they were not now expected to be first aiders at work; we’ve already got first aiders.”
Home safety initiatives can also help forge common ground between management and unions. “We’ve seen companies turn around their culture by making an off-job safety effort,” says Wilson. “They were at loggerheads inside the plant, but an initiative outside the plant that’s not a union programme and not a management programme provides a shared goal and is a great leveller. Whether you’re the CEO or the cleaner, if you’ve got teenage kids driving cars, you’re worried about them.”
The recent RoSPA call to action, together with the current focus of the HSE and IOSH on collaboration with partners, should provide a wake-up call to employers and occupational safety and health practitioners who may have overlooked off-job safety in the past. “It would be good to get more cross-collaboration and awareness,” says Hughes.
Such an approach would fit well with the HSE’s Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy, one theme of which is to “promote broader ownership of health and safety in Great Britain”. It would also be in line with IOSH’s own WORK 2022 strategy and its three interlinked programmes of delivery: to enhance, collaborate and influence. “We already collaborate with RoSPA, but maybe there is more we could do on the influence side,” says Hughes. “If you regularly attend a branch or volunteer perhaps, you could consider a home safety event for members.”