How audits can make recycling a safer place

The recycling sector is more accident-prone than other industries. But regular audits can keep your management systems up to scratch, as John Allen explains

Injury statistics tell the stark tale that waste and recycling are relatively dangerous sectors in which to be employed. In 2006-7 the rate of reported major injury in the recycling industry was 742.6 injuries per 100,000 employees - almost seven times higher than the national average for all industries.

Additional figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show that the average rate of fatal injury to employees in the recycling industry during the three-year period 2004-5 to 2006-7 was 15.1 deaths per 100,000 employees. The three-year average for all manufacturing industries, the industrial classification of which recycling is a part, was 1.3.

There are compelling arguments for acting on health and safety. Statistics of the sort that we have just outlined can appear fairly academic, but people matter and there needs to be an appreciation of the massive anguish that accidents can cause. The law also makes it clear that ignoring the well-being of those in your employment, and others affected by your undertakings, is not an option.

Having the right attitude
Additionally, a company's attitude to the prevention of accidents and ill health speaks volumes about its overall values and professionalism. Effectively, managing health and safety makes sound business sense, with good performance in this sphere increasingly being seen as a competitive advantage that is attractive to shareholders, potential business partners and customers.

The underlying principles of health and safety management require employers to ensure the absence of risk to the safety and health of employees and others "so far as is reasonably practicable". Meeting this requirement cannot be achieved by one-off interventions, and firms need to establish a robust system for managing health and safety before trying to find solutions.

Whether your organisation falls within the public or private sector, it is important to periodically check that your system for managing health and safety is up to scratch. This can be done through an audit. It is worth stating that an audit differs fundamentally from a safety inspection and also from a review of a particular policy area.

Inspections primarily assess physical workplace conditions and activities and, through observation, compliance with legal and best practice requirements can be checked. Reviews of particular policy areas, such as workplace transport, can enable organisations to establish how well they are addressing specific safety issues and formulate an action plan for improvement.

Take a holistic approach
Audits, however, look at the adequacy of the entire health and safety management system, identifying the quality of the system, as well as how it is implemented, and are much more far-reaching. Significant reassurance can come through an audit of the system that should be working to keep things healthy and safe. The process can help to highlight things that work well and that should be maintained, and also to identify areas that might require increased attention.

The time spent on the process will also pay dividends in long-term savings, including through the allocation of valuable resources to the issues that are identified by an audit to be important, rather than the issues that are merely thought to be important. Organisations that devote this level of attention to their management of health and safety also invariably see reduced accident rates, with consequent cost savings.

For an audit to be effective, a number of requirements should be met. Firstly, an audit should seek to compare a firm's management system against a suitable standard or management model. There are a number of best practice guidance documents on the subject that could be covered by an audit. These are: HSG65 - the Health & Safety Executive's Successful health and safety management; the British Standard guidance document BS8800; and the standard BS EN OHSAS 18001.

Flexibility in auditing is crucial if organisational requirements and objectives are to be met and reflected. Some key topics need to be addressed by all organisations, such as the management of fire and emergency situations. But others are more sector-specific, for example process change and plant modifications. Tailoring an audit to suit the specific risk profile of a particular firm is crucial.

A bespoke approach should continue into the reporting stage, such as through the production of quantitative results that allow benchmarking across different sites operated by the company in question and also against industry averages. Honest recommendations help a firm get to where it needs to be.

Audits should be carried out by trained and competent auditors. The practice requires certain knowledge and skills related to the standard against which the audit is being conducted and the actual techniques involved in auditing. Many companies prefer to use an experienced external consultant for auditing work, but there are options for those wanting to have a competent auditor among their own employees.

In considering this, it is important to research the training methods available, including how trainees' competence is assessed and whether they will be supported in auditing their own firms. When considering a health and safety audit, the focus should be on the motivation for carrying it out.

An audit should be seen in a positive light, as a development tool. Look for ways to publicise and celebrate any achievements that an audit identifies. Continuous improvement is the key to achieving real success in health and safety management and the ultimate aim of the auditing process is to enable this to happen.

John Allen is managing consultant at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)

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