Workplace health and safety has come a long way in recent years. Companies are now more aware of the affect that workplace incidents can have on their employees as well as the financial implications it brings. It’s a shift prompted by stringent regulation and legislation – particularly in the UK and Europe - and a desire to build health and safety into the business structure.
SUB-CONTRACTORS AND GLOBAL IMPLEMENTATION
Service is a global business. Companies employ engineers who work around the world. The challenge comes in ensuring this work is carried out safely regardless of their location.
Statistically, it seems standards do differ globally. According to Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-Related Illnesses, a 2017 study which included input from the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the European Union, workplace deaths are highest in Asia, accounting for two thirds of the annual 2.78 million total, with Africa and Europe contributing less than 12 per cent. According to the report China and India have the highest workplace fatalities which can be partly attributed, researchers say, to the size of the respective countries
One way to ensure safety consistency is through technology, for example, an electronic ‘safety passport’, a form of digital accreditation for engineers that would show if the correct training and correct equipment was being held. If not, then the worker would not be given clearance to carry out the task.
However, more manual deterrents such as a consequence management system to stop third-part contractors veering away from on-site standards is equally effective. Here a yellow/red card system can be deployed, where being shown the latter, or an accumulation of the former, can result in that firm’s contract being terminated.
Both these solutions work yet implementing them in countries where safety is not engrained can be difficult. Here a safety management programme underpinned by strong and robust safety culture can be just as effective.
A WORKPLACE SAFETY CULTURE
When it comes to a implementing a workplace safety culture, companies must lead from the top with a board and management buy-in that filters down through the organization to the shop floor.
Its integration however is a huge business challenge, a process that firms should viewed as a strategic change management process. Of course, any large shift in thinking and mentality is difficult, especially if an attitude has become embedded.
Two things that can alter attitudes to safety is understanding the brand and financial cost to a company if an incident occurs. In the UK stringent legislation and heavy fines serve to encourage firms to take their safety processes seriously, it means some companies now build the potential consequences of an incident into a business case that forms their health and safety strategy.
One example of this is the utility firm EDF who operate a number of power stations in the UK. These assets are high-risk and high-profile, and the firm in an effort to embed safety into the culture of the organization now associate health and safety with its bottom line; if you have a nuclear power station that is not inherently safe then it will affect its share price quite significantly.
A financial influence is one strand of safety adoption, yet to become embedded in a company’s outlook, health and safety should be approached psychologically. Today, when health and safety consultants come into a company tasked with improving its culture, they do so with the mind of a psychologist rather than a tick-box instigator.
Firms with a large employee count, which is often the case in manufacturing, can find it difficult to home in on individuals who have always done safety a certain way which can often be outdated and potentially dangerous.
Psychologically then, humans will eventually apply an unconscious bias to tasks they carry out on a day-to-day basis. Once something becomes routine then it becomes an unconscious process. Carrying out risk assessments is a common yet important task in the workplace however Its repetitive nature makes it vulnerable to such a bias, and it remains one of the key challenges in the sector to ensure employees are engaged when carrying out such activities.
More generally, health and safety suffers from bad PR, perceived as something that enforces red tape and stifles creativity and productivity. Although this attitude has improved in recent years it is still seen as something of a burden to employees; something to catch them out. Having a pragmatic approach to health and safety that is backed up with strong statistical evidence, can be a sensible approach rather than introducing a critical author with a clipboard.
Looping back to the beginning of this section, it’s paramount to embed health and safety in a company’s overall strategy and a firm’s performance culture more generally. Most service firms strive to achieve general quality and integrity in everything they do and would never dream of cutting corners in a service task. The same thinking must be applied to safety.
LONE WORKING AND MENTAL HEALTH
Recently, a societal shift towards mental health has identified the workplace as a potential trigger point. Employers now recognise the importance of their workers’ wellbeing. In the UK alone, staff absence from mental health issues accounts for 70 million workdays lost, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year.
In the service sector, workers who operate alone are more susceptible to having their mental health affected, given the remote nature of their environment. As a manager, it can be difficult to keep tabs on an engineer therefore creating the right touch points to ensure a dialogue is taking place can be vital when it comes to monitoring the mental health of your technicians. Too often, field engineers are just sent out and forgotten about.
The technicalities of health and safety for lone workers are slightly different to the traditional version of what we see as safety. Incidents, such as slips and trips and cuts in the office, are approached with a traditional risk-assessment, however lone workers should approach their tasks, which are generally more fluid, with a dynamic risk-assessment; the process of mentally observing, assessing and analysing an environment to identify and remove risk. This allows individuals to identify a hazard on the spot and make quick decisions regarding their own safety.
It’s an approach that requires a certain amount of trust on the part of employers who must be certain that these checks are taking place in their absence. However, this must be balanced by allowing the engineers a level of autonomy, something they value enormously. Looking over their shoulder from afar and monitoring their performance will only push a worker away.
Everything comes back to time for an engineer; it is probably the most precious commodity and the challenge is to blend safety into their routines while not affecting their productivity.
From a management perspective, creating a more sensible management framework that develops capabilities and structures can contribute to a more productive and efficient working environment.
If you are really are serious as top management around safety, you should start working on relieving pressure on people by putting in place better tools, mechanisms, processes and structures so they can be performed without sacrificing safety.
It’s generally agreed that workplace driving – irrelevant of vertical sector – is one of the biggest risks for service engineers. Again, the very nature of a lone worker means travelling to a job is a fundamental part of the process. With the number of cars on the road combined with driving hazards more generally there exists an increasing risk of driving accidents. Add workplace pressure to the mix and the risks increase further. Sensible driving policies are one way of dealing with this, however a middle ground must exist that where policies must encourage productivity and efficiency while being practical, realistic and enforceable.
Workplace health and safety has moved on considerably from its stereotypical image of clipboards and tick-boxes, where the health and safety inspector merely exists to distribute red-tape.
Today, modern health and safety management is integrated into the business outlook where the c-suite recognise the impact an incident can have on both the bottom line and its brand.
Service, it seems has employers who are more susceptible to risks than perhaps other areas; a risk area that incorporates two further sub-risks: lone working and driving, yet there exists a positive consensus around the importance of safety in the service sector and an understanding that it needs to be approached differently for engineers, many of whom work alone and are at a higher risk when driving to tasks.
Technology along with culture is a strong way forward and engaging more with workers and monitoring their wellbeing another solution, although a strong safety culture, which is fundamental, comes from management and those at board level.
Importantly, the mental health of technicians is being recognised and the challenge acknlowledged, given the remote environment that workers operate in. Again, integrating a culture that perceived as productive and useful by workers is essential.
Ultimately, field service engineers value time. It is an important strand of their work and making sure that health and safety impacts their time practically and is seen as something important rather than a nuisance.
All employees deserve to go home from work safely and as healthy as possible. In service we need ensure that this mantra is met by utilising technology, strong management and human understanding.