Their lives or ours?

Over the past few years there have been a number of cases in the news where either fire-fighters have lost their lives whilst trying to rescue people or people have died when fire-fighters have held back from entering a building.

There is a case currently in progress where fire officers are being prosecuted for involuntary (gross negligence) manslaughter, after fire-fighters lost their lives during a fire.  If they are found guilty they could be jailed for as much as 15 years – and even a suspended sentence will mean they will lose their job and their pension.  Even if they are found not guilty, there’s a danger of stress related illness brought on by the prosecution.

Is this fair when they were only doing the job they signed up for and are paid to do?

The track record

Fire officers are responsible for making the decision about committing crews to an incident.   However, when is it right to send fire fighters in and when should they be held back?

  • Two fire-fighters died rescuing people from a tower block, in Stevenage, where no members of the public were hurt
  • Six members of the public died in their homes (Lakanhal House), but no fire-fighters were injured
  • In an incident in Portsmouth members of the public were rescued, but two fire-fighters died.

The current case is focused on the deaths of four fire fighters who died in a warehouse fire in Warwickshire – where no people had been reported missing.

What happens next?

The prosecution have talked about “what some people see as the irritating trivialities of health and safety red tape”, but fire-fighters are trained to go into situations that are unsafe for most people.  Isn’t that the whole point of having a fire brigade?  They’re there to rescue people when health and safety has come unravelled.  They’ve signed up to walk into danger – in much the same way the Army do.

Of course, nobody wants fire fighters to die – and there is a requirement for dynamic risk assessment, which they have already discussed during the trial.  However, whatever the outcome of this case, there will be a backlash on fire officers throughout the UK.

Every time they have to make a decision whether or not to commit crews – they are likely to hesitate.  Not only will this mean that more innocent people will die – but that the fire service will no longer be effective in doing the job for which they are in existence.

What was that you said?

This article was written for Risk and Safety Plus by Joan McKechnie BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hearing Direct, which offers a range of hearing equipment for the deaf and hard of hearing. 

In the Western world, the two most common types of hearing loss are age-related and noise induced.  Age-related hearing loss is a gradual deterioration in hearing ability and there’s nothing that you can do to prevent it happening as you get older.  However, noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the result of damage – which the ear can be protected against.

When does NIHL occur?

If you are in a noisy environment for a prolonged period of time tiny hair cells in your ear are damaged – and the outcome is a reduction in your ability to hear clearly.

Damage to your hearing is irreversible which means that any ‘cure’ is merely a way to manage the condition.

The degree of hearing loss caused by noise will depend on factors such as:

  • How long the exposure continues
  • How loud the noise is

Everyone is different and the level of hearing loss will vary from one person to the next.

How to reduce NIHL

You don’t want to damage your hearing (or that of the people who work in your organisation) so it’s wise to take steps to reduce the risks of hearing loss from exposure to loud noise throughout the workplace.

These steps should include:

Identifying the problematic areas – ensure someone is tasked with the responsibility of identifying areas that exceed the permitted level of noise.  This needs to be checked regularly.

Changing to quieter processes – the best means to avoid the possibility of hearing loss in the workplace is to try to deal with the source of the noise.  Installing quieter machinery should be investigated.  The cost of doing this may appear high – however, claims against the organisation for workplace injury could end up costing much more.

Using hearing protection – noise reduction can be achieved with ear defenders and earplugs, but bear in mind that even the best carry an upper limit in decibel reduction. For example, a good quality earplug that fits the wearer well may carry a noise reduction of up to 20dB.   If a noise assessment measured 110dB in the area and guidelines do not permit noise levels to exceed 80dB this solution alone would be ineffective.

While it is possible to combine two types of hearing protection (e.g. plugs and ear muffs) to increase their dB reduction, employees should never be completely isolated from sound or they can be at risk of not hearing warnings.

Set procedures – policies should outline how the organisation addresses noise reduction and hearing loss.  Clear guidelines should be included regarding when and how hearing protection should be used.  Employees should also be given access to regular hearing tests.

With policies and procedures in place to manage the noise levels in all areas of the workplace, the people who work there will be protected against unnecessary loss of hearing.

Young people don’t understand risk!

Risk management is based on following a formula – inform; instruct; train; supervise.  When you have children you use this all the time when they’re young.  As they get older and able to understand the implication of their actions supervision gets less and they are expected to take more responsibility.

However, the move from the supervised school environment to the workplace is a much bigger leap than most youngsters are prepared for.  It’s no wonder that young people entering the workplace are twice as likely to have an accident than their adult counterparts.

Schools may provide information on health and safety, but rarely provide proper education in risk management, so young people arrive in their first place of work ill-equipped to make good quality decisions about the risks all around them.

As many young people’s first job is manual they’re in an even higher risk situation, this is particularly true in the construction industry where youngsters are very likely to have accidents.  In the year 2007-8 there were 2600 workplace accidents involving 16-24 year old men and 1033 involving young women in the same age group.  23 of those were fatalities.

The employers of young people suffering this kind of accident have been held to account in court and have been jailed where a young person has lost their life.  Like the 15 year old in Essex who was left alone to hold up a wall.  It fell on him and both the builder and the contractor were jailed for 3 and 1 years respectively.

There are other issues around young people in the workplace – because they don’t want to be seen as ‘complaining’ or are afraid of rocking the boat and losing a job that is hard to come by, they don’t report accidents.  In some cases, they don’t understand the importance of reporting incidents in relation to improving working conditions, equipment and practices.

Improving the situation

The transition between school and workplace could be handled better by both school and employer; too many assumptions are made about the competence of young people in unfamiliar situations.

  • Schools could prepare better with simulations or games* that help young people understand risk better.
  • Employers can follow the IITS formula more conscientiously:
    • Information – providing not only information about the risks, but also giving them a wider understanding of the reason why reporting accidents is important.
    • Instruction – even though young people’s brains are like sponges, most can only handle 5 dos and 5 don’ts at time.  Instructions need to be simple and pertinent to exactly what they’re doing.
    • Training – both school training in risk and employer training should line up – but currently don’t come close.  Most schools don’t have a sufficiently in-depth understanding of the working environment outside the school and many employers assume that general health and safety is enough.
    • Supervision – when young people arrive in the workplace they need close supervision until they demonstrate competence.  With a young person ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a recipe for disaster.

Young people bring lots of advantages to the workplace – but they need to be managed carefully to avoid them joining the accident statistics.

*Game simulations for a variety of purposes relating to risk, health and safety are available from Risk and Safety Plus.  Please contact us at info@riskandsafetyplus.com for more information.

Saving a life v. sticking to the rules

Last month a woman died after being trapped and suffering injuries at the bottom of a disused mine shaft in Strathclyde.  Despite fire and rescue teams being in attendance, the decision was made not to rescue her because of the health and safety policies being followed to the letter.

The inquiry identified a lack of proper risk assessment and inadequate training and planning, not to mention a frightening lack of knowledge of rescue resources available.

The issue of regulations and health and safety legislation saying ‘don’t take these risks’ and the so-called ‘rescue’ services being hobbled from doing what they’re paid for, is always going to cause debate.  There have been a number of cases where rescue personnel have been prosecuted for going outside the regulations – however, equally there have been cases brought against personnel where a lack of action has resulted in a fatality.

Of course, if, whilst rescuing someone, a fire fighter loses their life or the person being rescued suffers long term injuries, there will be an inquiry about what should and shouldn’t have happened.  However, the lack of skills and knowledge cannot be ignored.  Why is it that firefighters in Strathclyde have not been trained in line and rope rescue?  This used to be a part of the recruit course and regularly practised on fire stations.

This situation demonstrates a severe lack of care and professionalism on the part of the officers who made the decisions.  Isn’t it time that all emergency services officers took responsibility for their decisions and did the job they’re paid to do?

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Tips and information that will help you to create a practical and pragmatic approach to risk and safety.  Or call us for more information on 0845 430 9461.

U is for UV rays

If you’re wondering how UV could possibly affect your workplace – UV scanners are used to check out currency for fakes and to check for faults in metals used in construction.

Anyone who works outside may be affected by UV rays from the sun on those bright days. It’s often the bright, but not actually sunny, days that are most likely to cause problems as people can burn even if not in direct sunlight. Reflected rays are just as harmful and a light haze won’t stop the UV rays damaging exposed skin.

It’s important that outside workers are educated about the potential damage – not least skin cancer in the long term. Proper protection should be provided as with any other job where harmful agents are present – sunscreen, hats, good sunglasses, proper clothing, etc.

However, from the point of view of caring for your staff, it’s often their off duty activities where they are more likely to come into contact with UV rays. Think of how many times you hear members of staff planning to visit a ‘tan-stand’ to put a bit of colour on their skin prior to a beach holiday.
No, we’re not recommending you install a lunch-break tanning facility, but educating your staff could ensure you don’t lose working time when people don’t know the dangers of UV radiation.

Without the right knowledge and protection using UV rays can result in:#

  • Burns
  • Skin dryness and itching
  • Eye irritation or damage (this is particularly important where UV lamps are concerned, the right eye protection is essential)
  • Skin cancer
  • Premature ageing of the skin

Operators of all UV equipment – whether in a tanning parlour or in the workplace must follow the regulations to safeguard both staff and clients. They must also carry out risk assessments, ensure the correct replacement tubes are fitted, that staff are properly trained and aware of the risks and that customers are fully informed and protected as far as is practicable.

Whether your staff are working out in the sunshine or inside with UV equipment don’t forget to ensure they are properly educated and protected.

Care cutbacks can cost lives

The government’s latest economies are hitting people who need care to continue to live independently.  This seems to be in opposition to another core ‘value’ they announced, not all that long ago – to reduce fire deaths in people’s homes.

If people who need care have less care, they are more at risk in the event of a fire.  If they live in a building with a stay-put policy – meaning that they don’t leave their home unless the fire actually puts them at risk – and, without care, are unable to self-evacuate when needed, the result will be more deaths from fire, in the home.

Registered Social Landlords have a duty to house and also a duty to identify those who cannot self-evacuate and provide them with a Personal Evacuation Plan.  However, without the resources to provide the facilities to do so they are in a situation where they are unable to fulfil their duty.

Part of the assessment process may identify that people are living in the wrong premises, being on an upper floor where they are unable to get out without help.  This leaves the housing provider with difficult decisions – how do you move someone out of their home?

Even now there is little discussion between the housing providers and the care providers.  The very young, elderly, inform and disabled are already not getting the proper care – what will happen when the budgets are slashed even further?

Less care equals more risks in relation to fires.  That doesn’t equate to a reduction in fire deaths in the home.  Could someone please make their mind up – and consider human beings in the process of their decision making?

No win, lots of fees!

The compensation culture is about to be shot down.  Deregulation of marketing for the legal profession has resulted in shark-infested waters with everyone out to make as much money as possible from compensation claims, but things are about to change.

The Lord Young review started the ball rolling with the law changing so that the current feeding frenzy when someone cuts a finger in the workplace will no longer be the first option.

Currently the ‘no win, no fee’ offer offers injured people a means of getting compensation for theor injuries, but ‘no fee’ is not strictly accurate.  There are fees (even lawyers have to eat), but they are piled onto the ‘costs’ in court.  If your lawyer wins, the other side pay all the costs.  When you enter into one of these agreements, you’ll be asked to buy (yes, there are fees, just not for the case itself) an insurance policy to cover the costs should your lawyer lose the case.

The thin end of the wedge where the law will change affects road traffic accidents, but the same principle will apply to workplace accidents and personal injury claims.

Solicitors won’t be able to offer legal aid for their clients as the legal aid budgets are being cut too.  This means that whilst the number of claims will go down, legal fees overall are likely to rise – putting the option to make a claim beyond many people.

Our legal associates at Warner Goodman commented: “The government stopped legal aid and allowed No Win No Fee instead, but then the insurers were hit with success fees from the legal profession (given the risks we take) and the insurers passed on the costs to the punters.  Meanwhile the claimant’s insurers wanted a slice of the action so required referral fees, (then so do garages and dodgy geezers in shades!)  So the Government will now stop referral fees which lawyers never wanted in the first place!”

Fortunately, Risk and Safety Plus and Warner Goodman have put together a peace of mind package.  This takes care of the costs if your company is the subject of a prosecution – providing, of course, you’ve followed our advice!

Landlord gets huge fine for putting lives at risk

At the beginning of July Mohammed Javaid was found guilty of playing a risky game with his tenants’ lives. Of the 16 flats he owned six were considered to be uninhabitable due to the condition.

Mr Javaid chose to ignore the prohibition notice and not only allowed the tenants to remain, but moved additional people into empty flats and took absolutely no action to rectify the hazards.

These hazards included live electric cables right next to where people walked, no working lights in one basement area, missing fire alarms – which looked as though they had been removed leaving exposed cables dangling from the ceiling, missing fire doors and a lethal electric wiring system.

No fire risk assessment had been carried out, a proper alarm system was not in existence and the Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority were appalled at the state of the various premises.

Javaid pleaded guilty to 20 offences and Manchester Magistrates Court fined him £33,750 plus £8.5 thousand in costs. Probably, most of the work needed would have cost less.

This is exactly the kind of case that the authorities need to be chasing – and why we insist that our clients have risk assessments and fire risk assessments carried out regularly.

Thank goodness that action was taken before lives were lost.

Stealth and safety; Highway robbery

Last December the HSE announced that they were launching a consultancy ‘service’. This allows them to offer Health and Safety advice to organisations in much the same way as the Health and Safety practitioners that they police.

This makes them not only the enforcers, but also the support for those on the receiving end of enforcement notices. We thought that this was a conflict of interest and said so – and got positive support from the British Safety Council.

The latest chapter in this story has taken it to a whole new – and not very ethical – level.

The proposal that has just gone out for public consultation (very quietly) is that the law will be changed and new regulations established. What they are proposing is dressed up as ‘cost recovery’, but it isn’t.

An example of cost recovery is when, in order to provide a license for an organisation to operate in a particular area, such as nuclear sites or major hazard sites (e.g. petro-chem sites), research and information gathering are required. A charge is made to the licensee to cover this work. The HSE already have the ability to do this and that is perfectly above board and reasonable.

What the HSE is now proposing is that, if they visit a premises and feel that advice to the owner is necessary (not necessarily an enforcement order, it can simply be a letter of advice), a minimum charge of £750 will be made. This is NOT cost recovery. It’s extortion.

Far from being cost recovery, it’s revenue generation, pure and simple, and covers services that the tax payer already pays for.

This is akin to being stopped by the police for speeding, receiving a fixed penalty fine – and an invoice for the police officer’s time in carrying out the enforcement. If that happened a lot more people would be howling about ethics, morality and justice.

The TUC have recently been very vocal in attacking the HSEs proposed cost cutting exercise. The HSE claim to be aiming for 35% when every other government body is targeting 20% at the most. It’s no wonder that HSE can be that ambitious when they’ll be raking in revenue from the already hard hit small business owner.

On the other hand, they’re reducing enforcement in lower risk industries and with smaller employers. That doesn’t make any sense either, that’s where most accidents happen!

Part of the consultation document asks some ridiculous questions. For instance, asking local authorities if they would like to be able to act in a similar way. With the current cost cutting environment, they’d be crazy not to jump on the bandwagon; with the government’s backing. However, that doesn’t make it right. It will, however, ensure that there is plenty of support for this totally immoral proposal.

Whilst we know there are situations where enforcement is necessary to stop cowboys getting away with unsafe practices, but this will hit businesses that are doing their best in a difficult economic climate.

This whole strategy is extremely dodgy – and will put the credibility and integrity of the HSE in a very shaky position. It must be stopped or it will give the government a licence to rob businesses of their livelihood.

Essential equipment for fire safety?

In my day the Fire Brigade were there to support, educate and befriend businesses and homes and help them to get fire safety right so that lives were protected. These days they seem to have a new piece of equipment – a metaphorical sledgehammer for cracking ‘nuts’.

I keep coming across situations where the fire authorities and the local authorities approach is oppressive and, worse, inconsistent. This is particularly true where there is dual enforcement.
We have several clients in the social housing business who are struggling with the level of enforcement. The Fire Authority seems to be using today’s legislation – which is not retrospective – to force landlords to bring their buildings into line. In fact, some fire strategies could be removed rather than upgraded – they’ve just been overprovided.

Poor advice and this sledgehammer approach to enforcement is costing businesses time, effort, money and resulting in unnecessary enforcement notices, prohibition notices and a lot of stress and worry that could be avoided.

The government is creating legislation and the enforcement authorities are interpreting this as a licence to crack nuts. It’s not good for business and, in the long run, it’s not good for the economy – I know of at least one business that the owner closed, simply because the oppressive enforcement made him ill.

Change is needed; positive change that uses a common sense approach to risk and safety. Are you ready to help us make it happen?