In safe hands: Veolia shows the way forward

Veolia has taken an imaginative approach to improve health and safety standards across its business - with impressive results. Glenn Davies explains

Whether local authorities outsource their waste management activities or operate in-house, the sector's fatal accident rate of ten times the national average has to be a cause for concern. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has now called on the Waste Industry Safety & Health (WISH) forum to take action - members were asked to pledge their commitment to reducing accidents by 10% each year for the next five years.

Challenging, yet achievable, targets are needed to push the industry into action.

Legislation is a powerful influence, it drives the sector, ensures everyone is accountable, and demonstrates that technologies and practices are compliant with national and international law. Health and safety is just as important to our industry as compliance to environmental legislation. Yet few companies are investing time and money into their health and safety practices.

Councils need to tender carefully
If this situation is to change, local authorities need to pay more attention to health and safety generally when tendering their contracts. During the collection contract process the usual tendering issue is price - not enough attention is given to intangibles like health and safety. If safety issues are not given enough priority in the initial contract stage, the potential for accidents and near-misses will be undervalued.

The link between effective environmental performance and maintaining excellent health and safety standards is self-evident. My company Veolia Environmental Services is extending its corporate management system to include OHSAS 18001, the assessment specification for occupational health and safety management systems, which is being implemented at all locations.

During 2008, Veolia reduced its overall 'lost time accidents', defined as any accident where one day or more of absence has occurred, by 20% against those in 2007. A catalyst for this has been the introduction of new programmes, notably the award-winning behavioural attitude to health and safety (BATS) scheme.

The focus of the BATS programme is on improving performance by changing employees' perceptions, removing barriers to working safely and improving operating and engineering procedures. Identified trainers act as mentors to staff, coaching and training them on an ongoing basis as well as assessing, observing and subsequently modifying staff behaviour as they work. Key benefits include staff motivation to take personal responsibility, improvement in morale and most importantly a reduction in accidents and incidents.

Staff engagement was critical and several forums were held to canvass support and take on board ideas from staff. Two training courses were designed and implemented, one for senior managers and one for managers, supervisor and observers, in conjunction with the Campus Veolia training facility.

Is co-mingled safer?
Municipal collection methods can also have an impact on heath and safety. Veolia advocates the use of co-mingled collections for environmental reasons such as more efficient rounds with a lower impact on residents as well as local traffic, but also for health and safety, since road and refuse crews can move through their rounds faster with a lower impact on residents and local traffic. Co-mingled collections require less manual handling, reducing the amount of back, leg, and other bodily injuries commonly experienced through routine lifting.

In 2008, the feedback from Veolia's health and safety team was that their activities needed an emblem. The company felt that a different approach needed to be taken to drive the health and safety message home and so introduced the new H&S champion RAE - Veolia's own risk assessment expert (pictured). RAE has been devised in partnership with various unions including Unison, Prospect and Unite.

RAE is part of a nationwide poster and interactive campaign showing the potential risks employees are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. RAE exposes himself to every single hazard in the workplace, suffering injuries such as broken arms, burns, and ankle sprains. As such, RAE is an upfront reminder of the personal consequences of overlooking the health and safety aspects of the job.

Making the health and safety message personal can make a big difference too. In 2006, Veolia employee Andrew Longley was added to the growing number of accident statistics. While working on a roundabout outside Gillingham, a parked 18-tonne vehicle rolled backward towards Andrew and his crew. The driver had not applied the handbrake and the heavy vehicle hit Andrew as he stood nearby.

The left side of Andrew's body was seriously injured with most of the skin from his arm almost completely removed. Andrew received 13 operations, some as long as six hours, and was in intensive care for two weeks. He returned to work almost 15 months after his accident and was given the opportunity to speak about his accident at one of our conferences.

Ambassador role
His talk was so effective that he was given the role of health and safety ambassador. Andrew now works with the health and safety team to spread the message of 'Safety First' across the company. He hopes that by sharing his experience with work colleagues it will make them aware of the very real dangers in the workplace and prevent further accidents.

The HSE's 10% annual target can, and should, be beaten. Health and safety is critical to the wellbeing of staff, clients and the communities. As responsible employers within the waste management sector, it is everyone's priority that all staff return home from work safely at night. Introducing a safety culture doesn't happen overnight. It requires working continuously to improve our standards and ensure that good health, safety and environmental practices become second nature.

Glenn Davies is head of health and safety at Veolia Environmental Services

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