Fatal cases: Health and safety lessons for businesses

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Why should businesses invest in health and safety? I firmly believe that it is to ensure that employees and anyone affected by the business’ activities finish the working day in the same (if not better) state of health as when they arrived. The recent tragic events at the Didcot power station and the recycling plant in Birmingham only serve to highlight that this does not always happen.

As well as health and wellbeing, other positive reasons to invest in health and safety include minimising disruption and cost to the business of having staff off sick, a culture where people feel valued, lower insurance premiums, protecting the hard earned reputation of the business and of course compliance with the law.

Analysing cases where things have gone wrong can be a useful way that lawyers and other advisers can help businesses develop and improve their health and safety systems so that they are fit for purpose and achieve positive outcomes.

By way of example, I have reviewed recent fatality cases prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which reveals that in the vast majority of cases, it was a catalogue of failings, as opposed to one thing that led to the individual losing their life.

The range of failings included:

  • ineffective health and safety management systems
  • ineffective guarding
  • inadequate risk assessments
  • lack of or enforcement control measures
  • inadequate inspection and/or maintenance of work equipment
  • inadequate training (communication) and/or supervision
  • unsafe working practices
  • not investigating previous similar incidents
  • poor communication between employers working on the same job

This concurs with my experience of defending serious accident/injury cases. But how does this help businesses? After all, my analysis does not narrow down the aspects that businesses should focus on to minimise the risk of a serious accident.

In my view, that is the point; businesses need to be vigilant right across the board – and, for example, eradicate the unsafe working practices that become "the way we have always done it", stop untrained staff working on unsuitable jobs and ensure proper communication with staff (through training and instruction) and where appropriate, other organisations.

Those responsible for health and safety within the business need to properly understand what is really going on and put their systems to the test rather than assuming that because they have a shiny policy folder on the shelf, their health and safety practices must be sufficient. This doesn’t mean that businesses need to get bogged down by health and safety – but investing time and money in effective health and safety systems to protect employees and others makes so much better business sense than having to invest even more money, time and emotion following a serious accident.