Get your health and safety procedures wrong and you could end up in court, with your brand and reputation badly damaged:

Not that long ago, many manufacturing organisations might well have looked at their internal processes and structures, and felt they had health and safety more than adequately covered. Typically, a health & safety manager and his/her team would have been in charge of ensuring day-to-day compliance, in accordance with overall policy, and, by and large, that would have been deemed sufficient.

Now this has all changed. Why? Two drivers, primarily the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, which came into force in April 2008, and the growing commitment to corporate responsibility that has been the health and safety agenda being pushed increasingly from the top.

“Certainly, that greater awareness of health and safety obligations has also been reinforced by the many highprofile incidents that have occurred worldwide over the last decade, such as Buncefield, the Morecambe Bay helicopter crash, the Potters Bar rail disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” says Tim Hill, partner, solicitor advocate, at international law firm Eversheds. “We’ve been directly involved in many of these and seen their impact.

Collectively, this has concentrated the minds of organisations at board level, and they are investing the time and effort to create an efficient and positive culture around health and safety, taking the business down a much more proactive route.”

Eversheds’ international team works closely with many of its largest clients, focusing on the strategic importance of good health and safety governance, as well as compliance through clear workplace strategies, the successful management of critical risks and a demanding regulatory framework, helping them to deliver the safest possible environment for staff and those affected by the operation of their business.

It also provides 24/7 crisis support in response to major incidents to help senior and local management bring an emerging situation under control, investigate the cause, provide advice and support during investigations by the authorities, and help to manage communications both internally and externally.

“One of our key strengths is being able to take our vast experience of reacting to incidents, regulators and prosecutions, and then using that knowledge to work with clients through training, audit and review, to try to put board members and senior management in a position to avoid an incident or minimise its impact,” states Hill.

And that impact can be massive, especially the resulting damage to brand and reputation – witness the incidents mentioned above. “An incident can result in years of investigation by the police and Health and Safety Executive, political in-fighting and raise grave questions as to how that business is run during that time, in order to meet its legal obligations, with all of the disruption that entails.”

The need for strong, direct leadership is something he cannot emphasis enough. Failure to make the workforce thoroughly aware of health and safety policy is not only poor practice, but potentially catastrophic. “By way of example, in one canning factory there was a problem on a palletising machine. Those working on the line felt they couldn’t switch it off, as that would back up production, so someone climbed into the machine, with fatal consequences. Yet there was actually a 45-minute time lag built in to the schedule, which management knew about, but the operators said that they did not. That’s why it’s so important to get the health and safety message widely disseminated across the usiness, from the top down.”

Eversheds takes its clients through a 10-point health and safety checklist*, covering what the board should be doing to establish exactly what is happening on the ground, right across the business. “It’s about much more than a numberof shiny policies sitting up on a shelf. We will test them with the same questions they might expect to face down at the police station, after an incident, where there would be tape recorders running – which is a scary thought in itself.

Avoiding such situations not only demonstrates adherence to proper health and safety procedures; it also means less time is lost dealing with incidents, fewer claims and greater staff morale.”

*Based on the HSE’s ‘Leading health and safety at work: leadership actions for directors and board members’, published in conjunction with the Institute of Directors

This article first appeared on 15th August 2012 in Works Management Magazine