Every death at work is worthy of close attention and most represent a lapse in someone’s duty of care that other employers could learn from.
But each fatality also contributes to an annual total that summarises our collective progress. When that total was published recently for the 12 months to April 2018 it confirmed that, when adjusted for the size of the national workforce, it was broadly the same as the four previous years.
When the non-fatal injury statistics follow in November they are likely to show the same thing. After decades of more or less steady decline, workplace accident and illness rates have levelled off.
The Health and Safety Executive, recognising that there is a limit to how much it can do to ensure better protection in hundreds of thousands of workplaces either by threat or encouragement, calls on business to be “part of the solution”.
For some employers, especially smaller ones, just applying the hierarchy of controls, from hazard elimination down to personal protection, would bring marked improvement.
But many organisations with more mature OSH systems face the same flattening of accident rates shown in the national statistics and are wondering what to do about it.
In the search for an answer, some have turned to the “safety differently” approach which measures inputs such as audits and leader engagement rather than concentrating only on accidents and their causes.
Paul Wright, OSH director at Biffa, is adapting process safety systems developed for oil rigs and chemical plants to waste collection and treatment in a bid to avoid a forecast flattening of the company’s incident rate.
Either of these approaches could be the next big thing that pushes down injury rates in those organisations that adopt it.
But whatever novel path an organisation treads, what’s certain is that it is most likely to succeed if it gets its workforce on side. In many cases that means penetrating the scar tissue of scepticism formed by all the initiatives workers have seen launched with posters and pyrotechnics only to fizzle out within 12 months.
But if you can engage people in a programme they believe is virtuous, and that you are committed to, an extraordinary multiplier effect can kick in.
In 2007 Marks & Spencer launched Plan A, its campaign to reduce environmental impacts. The retailer estimated that the 100 commitments in the plan could cost it up to £40m per annum in its first five years. But the system of local improvement groups unlocked something dormant in M&S employees and ideas flooded in. By the second year, the programme was cost neutral; by the third it had generated a net saving of £50m. And that’s on top of the environmental benefits to the wider world.
This snowball effect was also apparent at one of BSE Systems’ Tyneside plants a few years back where everyone from shop stewards to senior management was overflowing with enthusiasm for a wellbeing programme, led by employee volunteers, that cut the absence rate by two-thirds.
There is unlikely to be a silver bullet that organisations can load to restart the virtuous trend in UK accidents and ill health, but any initiative that brings employees with it is more likely to make a contribution, and could be transformative.