When doing things right looks wrong

We all develop bad habits – and, when you’ve practised the bad habit often enough, it feels comfortable. When others see you practising this habit, they will often follow suit and acquire the same comfortable, bad habit.

When someone comes along who has been taught the right way to carry out that activity, it looks wrong. It’s not the way everyone else does it, so it can actually cause problems as they try to work around the people who have developed the wrong way of doing things.

Let’s look at an example that most of us are familiar with: If you are driving down 4 lane motorway it’s quite common for people to drive in lanes 3 and 4, even when lanes 1 and 2 are virtually empty. If a driver stays on the inside lane, they can end up undertaking – which puts them in the wrong. However, if they have to move out to from lane one or two, to lane four to overtake someone in lane two, it looks wrong.

What is right has become slightly outside the norm, so it looks wrong – and often results in other drivers muttering about ‘people who can’t drive’, even though it is the correct driving behaviour.

When something in the workplace looks wrong, it’s worth examining the purpose of the activity before simply dismissing it as ‘the wrong way of doing that’. It may be that work processes could be improved and risks reduced by identifying when bad habits have become the norm.

Is ‘Care’ on your checklist?

The problem with having a ‘Duty of Care’ is that it stops becoming an instinctive response and turns it into an item on the checklist of requirements.

The process of getting people to do things is usually through providing them with the appropriate levels of information, instruction, training and supervision (IITS), care is part of the package – it’s why the whole process works.

Families do this instinctively – parents teach their children what is right and what is wrong, help them to identify hazards, understand risks. There are lots of dos and don’ts, ‘be home on time’, ‘don’t upset the neighbours’, ‘don’t run into the road without looking’.

Families teach children how to do things right and keep an eye on them until they are carrying out the practice reliably. If someone is not able to do everything for themselves, the family often looks out for them, for instance if an elderly relative is not too steady on their feet, another family member will usually phone up regularly to check that they’re OK.

Most of us do this naturally – we don’t have to be taught to care, we just do that for the people closest to us, whether friends or family. The problem is that, for some reason, that doesn’t translate into the workplace. At work we’ve been told to care, so it stops being instinct and becomes a duty – a tick box.

People switch off the instinctive response to care for their workmates – and it becomes the responsibility of the employer to install processes that ‘care’. Care isn’t a process, it’s an instinct – one we all have, it shouldn’t be a box on a checklist.

I knew that was going to happen!

Every one of us has instincts about things not being right. The trouble is that most of us have been taught to ignore them and do what the ‘rules’ say.

As an accident investigator, it’s rare that I don’t come across at least one person who tells me “I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.” This is far too common for it to be a coincidence and it’s not just people operating from the clarity of vision created by hindsight!

Most of us have experienced this ‘something’s wrong’ instinct, whether it’s an instinctive feeling of discomfort when you meet someone, a feeling of foreboding when you enter a building or just a ‘feeling in your water’! I’ve come across many people who should have been on public transport right at the centre of where the bombs went off on 7th July 2005, but, for a whole variety of reasons had decided not to go. Many can’t identify why they felt this way, but are very thankful that they did. I wonder how many of those who died had experienced that ‘something is wrong’ feeling, but brushed it off as nonsense.

If your instincts are telling you something is wrong – don’t ignore them. Explore what it is that might be causing it. You could avoid an accident – and you could save others from pain, injury and loss.

Is the cotton wool culture killing our economy?

The education system over the past couple of decades seems to be learning heavily towards sheltering children from all aspects of risk. Unfortunately, as risk is an aspect that occurs in almost every aspect of life – particularly in running a business, this is actively discouraging children from becoming entrepreneurial.

Children are not taught to assess risk; so that they understand it can be avoided, reduced, transferred and/or accepted; they’re simply taught that risk is bad news. Interestingly, the most entrepreneurial kids are often punished and many end up on the wrong side of the law. These are the ones that buck against the system and some go so far as to remove themselves from the system altogether, by becoming runaways.

How much more dynamism would our economy have if we could harness the power of those youngsters who are sufficiently strong-minded to do things their way? When they baulk against the ‘batch’ production techniques employed by our education system, they are treated as misfits and as difficult.

Instead of talking about the benefits culture, why aren’t the government encouraging schools to educate pupils about risk, especially entrepreneurial risk? Why aren’t they finding channels for those independent thinkers to express their entrepreneurial instincts?

Are you practising safe risk?

I happened to be attending the Money Show recently and I realised that, despite being far from a financial genius, I understood the language everyone was talking. They were talking about one of my favourite subjects – risk!

In the financial markets the aim is to get rewards and the higher the rewards, the bigger the risks. However, traders and experienced investors don’t just keep their fingers crossed and go for it; they have a process – and the more I listened, the more I realised that this was my language. It’s the same process used in managing all kinds of risks, including occupational safety, environmental and reputational risks.

They talked about:

• Identifying the hazards – getting information from the markets so you have a thorough knowledge about what you’re investing in. In our business it’s exactly the same process; it’s about taking an informed approach to the type of hazard and understanding the issues involved in that particular set of circumstances.

• Evaluating the risk – examining how much and when an investment is likely to grow or drop in value and checking out your exposure. Just like the financial markets, you need to determine the likelihood and severity of the risk, but, just like the financial markets, you can rarely eliminate it altogether.

• Establishing controls – I heard people on various stands talking about different sorts of control, such as options to enable them to sell their shares back into the market place at some future time at a pre-arranged price. This is the equivalent to transferring risk to an insurance company. There are other ways of mitigating risk, in the finance world such as the use of stop/loss controls, which, like personal protective equipment, are a last resource measure, if everything else fails.

• Recording the significant findings – in the financial world they record performance to track how their investments are doing. In the business world employers and premises managers record their procedures and the outcomes of their evaluations (i.e. risk assessments) to prove they have reduced risk, as far as is reasonably practicable and also to identify instances where things have gone wrong so they learn from these and prevent them happening again.

• Monitoring and review – investors and traders are forever re-evaluating their investments; they don’t just buy and then forget about it. Keen investors watch the various indices and charts like a hawk to see how their investment is doing, making regular and frequent decisions about how to improve their position. Ideally, this is also what businesses should be doing in relation to occupational and environmental risk etc., as circumstances change – some do – but many don’t. They forget to carry out ongoing monitoring and only review when their assessments are out of date, or approaching their formal review date.

Financial risk is just one element of business or organisational control. Most business owners and principal managers are very aware of their financial situation – it’s expected of an entrepreneur, especially one who is growing a successful business. The same processes apply to occupational risk and safety – you can’t eliminate all risks, but you can invest in a safer way of protecting both your people and your profits!

Managing your risks

The consultant client relationship is a two-way street and relies on communication, transparency and trust. In the risk and safety industry this is particularly important as getting it wrong puts lives at risk.

The law requires you to have access to a qualified safety advisor. Risk and Safety Plus act as safety advisors for businesses that don’t need a full-time member of staff in this role, offering this as a retained service. However, in order to do our job properly we need to find out what the risks actually are.

This means we need to carry out a fact find to discover what the risks are so we know what we’re dealing with and what our liability is. We put our heads on the client’s chopping blocks!

It’s our responsibility to ensure that the organisation takes their risk management and safety practices seriously. This includes ensuring appropriate training is carried out and refresher ‘top-ups’ when take place needed.

These are all part of operating responsibly and having a retained safety advisor won’t help you if you haven’t taken their advice, or in some cases haven’t actually had a meeting with your safety advisor for over a year. If the enforcement agencies come to call we’re not an insurance policy that will save you from receiving an enforcement or prohibition notice!

Whilst we carry professional indemnity as consultants, if we can’t find out what our liability is, we’re taking unacceptable risks. Sometimes the risk is too high!

What does this mean to you? If you’re paying a retainer for a safety advisor, use their skills to help you ensure you’re operating safely.

A retained advisor will:

• Ensure that you have appropriately trained personnel in place for your type and size of business
• Identify risks and suggest strategies to deal with them or, better still, reduce or eliminate them
• Help you to maintain a safe working environment so you have a low incidence of accidents and ‘near misses’
• Keep your insurance company happy – you’ll have far less likelihood of having to make a claim (so your premiums will stay at a reasonable level)
• Check you are compliant with current legislation

These are all part of being a responsible organisation – whether you’re a small business or a big one.

Walking the incapacity benefit tightrope

I’m all for stopping people malingering – why should people who work hard to pay their bills support people who are able to work, but choose not to and expect to be paid for doing nothing? The latest government drive to get people back to work through reviewing sick leave and incapacity benefits is, in principle, a good thing, but there are pitfalls.

If doctors are pushed not to sign people off unless it’s essential, there is a danger that people who shouldn’t be at work will become a liability in the workplace for a variety of reasons. People who are forced back too early after an illness or injury are a danger to themselves and others.

If people are forced into work, they don’t want to be there and come with the wrong attitude. They’re likely to ‘infect’ other staff with their negative approach and don’t care about the business or the people in it. Are they really the people any employer wants?

Then there’s the issue of the new Equality Act consolidating previous disability and discrimination acts. 100+ pieces of legislation have been repealed, some partially repealed, some revoked, and some partially revoked, so employers will have to through learning curve to establish what the new laws actually are now.

Now that pre-employment health checks have been banned on the grounds that they could be discriminatory employers are in a no win situation. If they take on someone with pre-condition that doesn’t allow them to do the job, the can end up with someone suffering injury on the job, and then suing the employer. Long term sickness absence can also result, leaving the employer in a situation where they are paying an employee who is unable to do the job for which they were employed.

At the same time as this drive to get people into employment, it’s worth taking a look at the employment statistics. Unemployment – for those who are actively looking for work – isn’t exactly at its lowest ebb. With older people working longer and more people being sent back to work there’s a danger that jobs will become scarce.

All these actions need to have a serious set of parameters or a lack of joined up thinking will be to the detriment of all.

When the Tories cut deeply enough to put people in hospital

Everybody knows that you can’t get a quart out of a pint pot and maybe the Tories need to take that on board. Cuts in government expenditure are good and Sir Philip Green has already discovered lots of potential savings in procurement.

If savings can be made through efficiency, that’s a good thing. However, if you have to cut budgets from schools, the health service, the roads and other essential areas and the infrastructure suffers there will be an impact on health and safety to the community.

  • If bridges aren’t repaired when they need it, people may be injured or killed when they collapse.
  • If potholes in the road are not filled, more accidents involving vehicles (and people) are likely.
  • If schools are unable to provide the facilities for students, equipment may not be replaced when needed and accidents will happen as a result.
  • If there is a lack of facilities to care for people when they are sick, their condition may worsen and even become life-threatening.
  • Despite the need to watch the bottom line and I’m all in favour of making government processes more efficient, it is essential that continued investment in the infrastructure is made to keep the community safe.

    If the Tories cut facilities to the bone, there could be an increase in fatalities and serious injuries. Without the resources to deal with their care in hospitals and doctor’s practices that’s going to be a very slippery slope.

    What happens to your fire risk assessment when the fire service goes on strike?

    When we carry out fire risk assessments for our clients we make recommendations on when they should be reviewed next. It depends on the risk level of the working environment , but in normal risk environments that’s usually every one or two years – unless circumstances change.

    A fire fighters strike constitutes a change in circumstances. Fire risk assessments are usually created on the basis of the expected attendance times of emergency services. They invariably take account of where the local fire station is in relation to the fire evacuation strategy.

    If the fire fighters are not there the response times are likely to very different – even if replacements are found. Technically that means that every single fire risk assessment that has been written has to be reviewed (and our advice is that you give this some serious consideration, simply to protect your workforce and premises). If you have a fire you could find that your fire risk assessment has literally and figuratively gone up in smoke.

    However, you’re probably not going get into trouble for not carrying out this review as the people who carry out inspections to check up on fire safety are on strike!

    The risk of keeping clients

    The consultant client relationship is a two-way street and relies on communication, transparency and trust. In the risk and safety industry this is particularly important as getting it wrong puts lives at risk. The law requires all business with more than five employees to have access to a qualified safety advisor and one of the services we supply is to be retained as safety advisors for businesses that don’t need a full-time member of staff in this role. However, in order to do our job properly we need to find out what the risks actually are.

    Some clients see our services in a different light; we’re their ‘insurance policy’ to fall back on if the enforcement agencies come to call. We put our heads on their chopping blocks!

    Whilst we carry professional indemnity as consultants, if we can’t get in to ensure we know what we’re dealing with so we know what our liability is, we’re taking unacceptable risks. Sometimes the risk is too high!