Health and safety partnerships are the key

David Left, head of Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) Utilities National Interest Group (UNIG), explains the importance of partnerships.

“If you can manage your business, you can manage health and safety. Health and safety should sit alongside every other core management issue from quality to finance, from managing people to customer service.”


This quote came from Frank Davies, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) when launching guidance on a practical approach to workplace health and safety. He is keen to encourage companies to investigate the economic benefits of good health and safety management as well as ensuring their legal and moral responsibilities were met and has emphasised that compliance with legislation and sensible financial management were not conflicting interests.

If we accept that business will find it hard to survive unless it develops good working partnerships and communications between management, workforce, banks, suppliers, contractors, trade associations, regulators and customers. The same applies to health and safety issues. The consequences, however, may not be purely financial if death or serious injury could be the result.

This is particularly relevant for the water industry where changes resulting from business re-engineering, downsizing and increased use of contractors have the potential to adversely affect health and safety standards unless properly managed. Individuals are being given more responsibilities and work related stress is becoming an increasing problem. Organisations diversify into new activities and staff change their jobs more frequently. Developing good working partnerships, however, will help by increasing understanding and improving communications.

In simple terms, everyone is connected with health and safety in industry. The list includes employers, employees, regulators, such as HSE, unions, contractors, manufacturers, suppliers, trade associations, media and the general public.

The most important health and safety partnership, however, is that between employer and employees in any individual company or organisation. It is the one that shapes and determines an organisation’s health and safety culture which is an important way to change attitudes and bring about lasting beneficial changes. It has to be underpinned, of course by successful health and safety management which to be effective needs to be proactive rather than reactive. Local liaison arrangements with trade unions are also an important factor here.

What is happening at your particular company? Is health and safety managed by having clear policy, proper organisation and planning, performance measurement, review and audit? Are there clear lines of communication both from and to management? Companies should not over-rely on written downwards communication, face-to-face discussions are just as important. Senior managers should be leading from the front when it comes to health and safety by touring the workplace, talking to staff, chairing meetings and leading investigations of serious accidents. The manager who nips through a noisy zone without wearing hearing protection sets a very bad example to all and demonstrates lack of real commitment to health and safety.

Similarly, what type of partnerships do you develop with contractors who work for you? Some companies in the utility sector treat health and safety of contractors in the same way as their own staff, others fall far short of this standard.

Local partnerships with others can also bring health and safety benefits. For example, does your organisation have a good working relationship with your local HSE inspector or do you only receive a visit following an accident or incident.

What about relationships with manufacturers and suppliers to ensure that equipment purchases exactly meets the operational and health and safety needs of the company? Involvement in local health and safety groups and other organisations will also pay dividends. Do you have a good working partnership with other utility companies and contractors in your locality?

Partnerships at national level also play a very important role in health and safety and involve trade associations, trade unions, research bodies, HSE and other government departments. For example, I would encourage the exchange of information on accidents and incidents at national level, this may help others within a particular industry avoid similar accidents.

Health and safety groups set up by trade associations are also very effective national partnerships. For example the Water Services Association’s Health and Safety Technical Group (HSTG) is the main point of national contact with HSE via the UNIG for the water industry. I believe it plays a very important role in improving health and safety in the sector.

The health and safety system in Great Britain relies heavily on effective working partnerships between key players. The HSC and HSE rely heavily on working partnerships with all sides of industry to develop and enforce the system for health and safety legislation.

The working relationship between the health and safety regulator and industry depends to a great extent on consultation and liaison. It involves working through advisory committees, national associations, intermediaries, guidance and advice and the day to day contact inspectors have with people at work. My group works across most of the utilities sector and our main tasks are to liaise nationally with key players in the various sectors to improve health and safety and to provide guidance for inspectors in the operations groups.

These national partnerships that develop with trade associations, trade unions and others, play a very important role in addressing key health and safety issues within particular sectors. For example, the Utilities NIG and the HSTG worked together on the subject of health risks from sewage. UNIG and HSTG also recognise the benefits of working together on health and safety matters in the water sector and are well advanced in developing a strategic plan to identify areas that the two groups see as priorities.

I have emphasised the importance of developing good working partnerships to improve health and safety in the water industry, it is now up to you to make it work.

400 per cent decrease in accident rate

Staff taking responsibility for health and safety has reduced the accident rate by almost 400 per cent, says north west water. Three of the company’s major construction projects have celebrated reaching a landmark safety target of working more than 500,000 man hours without an accident leading to time taken off work. These are thought to be the first construction sites in the water industry to have reached this safety target. The key has been getting managers across the company to take responsibility for health and safety and setting up the necessary support systems and procedures to enable them to achieve high safety standards. The whole process has been developed with the water company’s engineering partner Bechtel water technology.

Chris Lea, safety adviser for North West Water explained: “Rather than just relying on periodic checks from health and safety officers we are now making sure that health and safety is part of every project, built in right from the planning and design stage.

“By changing the way we look at , and the culture of, health and safety in the company, we have reduced the number of accidents which lead to time off work from more than 400 ten years ago to 47 last year.”

North West Water has invested more than £8 million on improving safety on sites, providing safety training for staff with safety away days, continuous development and the introduction of team briefing sessions. To improve reporting even further, the company plans to introduce “near-miss” reporting in order to prevent history repeating itself.


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