Rethinking workplace health and safety

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It has been estimated that the cost of deaths, injuries and illnesses caused in New Zealand workplaces is between $4.3 billion and $8.7 billion per year. More people are injured from work-related causes than in road accidents. 

Every week a New Zealander dies on the job. International statistics tell a similar story. The various health and safety statistics relating to contracting industries make sobering reading. For example, in 2004 a total of 14 people died as a result of injuries occurring in construction — more than in any other industry. 

And 43% of all injuries in 2004 occurred in industrial or construction areas. This is not surprising. People are more likely to be injured in a job that’s physically demanding, or in a work environment that’s constantly changing, compared to somewhere like an office, where an employee’s surroundings may be more constant. 

It’s obvious that people are more likely to be harmed — at least physically — in a work environment where there’s digging and lifting and heavy machinery operating than one where the principal activities are typing and fi ling. Nevertheless, the statistics for construction industries and the suffering they represent are cause for concern. 

And while the sector has, for some time, recognised and responded to the need to actively address health and safety concerns, all parties — employers, workers and the Government — agree that something more is needed. There is a clear need for a culture that values health and safety to become more embedded, but how can this be achieved? 

In the past, regulation has been seen as one means of driving change. But regulatory measures are a negative incentive, and are ultimately limited in their effectiveness. This was reflected in a Select Australasia Employment Trends Survey in June last year, which showed that although 97% of employers surveyed had health and safety systems in place — as required by law — 50% said they believe they have only an average general knowledge of health and safety in their workplace. 

In reality there are much better reasons for employers to rethink their approach to health and safety Aside from the fact that it is intrinsically good for people to be fit and well, happier and healthier employees are more productive, and productivity is, of course, good for business. 

An obvious positive outcome of safer workplaces is fewer lost-time injuries. And in the long term, health and safety is a core part of a company’s social responsibility and a factor influencing reputation. Prevention is better than a cure, for people and business alike. 

Transforming attitudes Recognising the positive benefits of an effective health and safety regime, the challenge for managers and executives is to transform attitudes within their company, and to introduce effective health and safety practices. 

This has to start at the top. A company’s health and safety initiatives will only ever be successful if they are genuinely reflected in the attitudes of senior management. This is true not only because managers have greater control over operational practice, but because the priority other staff members place on health and safety will directly reflect the attitudes of their seniors. 

Once the decision has been made to think differently, there are many ways a business can make a focus on health and safety pervasive. While health and safety is the responsibility of all employees individually, committees and site safety representatives can help lead internal conversations on health and safety issues. 

In keeping with a top-down approach, this should include discussions at management level. Well-defined health and safety policies and processes will help to drive action. A clear commitment by management can be made in a written statement, and maintained through regular comment on key performance indicators. 

Goals, schedules and protocols Goals can be defined and processes outlined for identifying, evaluating, preventing or controlling workplace-related hazards. Equipment observation and inspection schedules can be established, and workers assigned areas of responsibility with specific tasks. 

Protocols can be put in place for dealing with accidents, or the sudden awareness of a hazard. Whether health and safety measures are well established, or a business is only beginning to put them in place, systems testing and emergency drills are critical to ensure employees understand, and are correctly carrying out, safety procedures. 

A level of first aid training and education can be maintained across the business by including appropriate training from the moment employees join the company. Induction should also be used to outline potential hazards on sites, and to introduce new employees to the company’s commitment to, and practices to maintain workplace safety. 

The bottom line is that while there needs to be an emphasis on health and safety throughout a company, it doesn’t have to be costly, and can bring significant benefits to workers and business performance. Looking back, we’re making progress — New Zealand’s death rate from workplace injuries is at least 40% lower than it was 30 years ago. 

But to achieve the full benefits of better health and safety practices in the future, the next step is to change how we think.