An investment not a hindrance

Chair of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH)'s Environment & Waste Management Group, Joe Taylor, looks at best practice in the water industry, and the potential impact of the Government review into UK laws

Working at height, drowning, working in confined spaces and waterborne diseases are only a few of the hazards workers in the water and wastewater industry face. But with these potential risks, if you are looking for a snapshot of the state of health and safety in the sector, then the picture is murky.

Official statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for 2009/10 and 2010/11 report a disappointing increase in the number of fatal accidents in the industry, which have risen from four to 10. However, non-fatal accidents have decreased across the board.

The rise in the number of fatalities certainly does not correlate with the fall in non-fatal accidents, and this mirrors the figures across industries. But while there is a lack of clarity over the statistics, one thing is clear – the health and safety of people who work in this sector is as important as it has ever been. Continual development and improvement in occupational safety and health is a key factor.

Best practice
And there are employers out there who are leading the way in protecting their workforces. In the industry there a number of fantastic best practice examples we can look to for guidance. Take Nomenca – the mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, control and automation (MEICA) contracting arm of the North Midland Construction (NMC). The organisation has won a number of awards for its health and safety practices, including a Water Industry Achievement Award and Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents gold award.

NMC has practical, yet effective health and safety values. Its dedication to health and safety has been demonstrated in a number of projects, in particular a recent project at Minworth Sewage Treatment Works for Severn Trent Water. The four-year, £150million joint venture between NMC and Biwater Treatment considered everything from encouraging near miss reporting, to improving signage on the site.

On top of that, the company says it continues to improve its health and safety record, holding consultations with site operatives (both employees and sub-contractor) to identify ‘invisible risks’ and actively encouraging the promotion of reporting of health, safety, environmental and quality issues from site and offices. It has also launched a Learn Share Improve scheme, where operatives’ suggestions are shared across the company and the wider industry to improve standards.

Then there is the work of Water UK’s health and safety committee. The committee is made up of health and safety bosses from most of the UK’s suppliers. Committee chair, Neil Murray, said: “As a group we strive to improve health and safety standards in the industry, producing guidance and advice along the way. Within the industry there are a number of best practice examples and our objective as a committee is to share these industry-wide.

“Leadership and accountability are vital from the top down when it comes to health and safety. Water companies need to invest in ethical ways of working to protect the public from harm. Eventually, it would be great if all suppliers and contractors could work to the same common standards – to prevent illness, injury and save lives.”

Health and safety in the water industry, as in any industry, must remain paramount. At a time when companies are pulling the purse strings tight, it is vital health and safety remains a key part of every business strategy. Although the water and wastewater sector is regulated by the Environment Agency, it is still required to meet its statutory duty under UK health and safety law with regard to the protection of employees, and where the handling of waste is concerned.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt’s government-commissioned review of health and safety legislation was launched back in November last year and it is still unclear how the changes will affect the water and wastewater industry. Following the launch of the report and the Government’s acceptance of its recommendations, IOSH raised concerns about the speed and scale of the proposed rationalisation of health and safety regulations – and the plan to exempt some self-employed workers from their statutory duties.

At the unveiling of the review in the UK, the Government also announced an immediate consultation on the abolition of large numbers of health and safety regulations. IOSH supports the streamlining and simplification of health and safety regulations, but is keen to find out how the Government intends to reduce the number by half without increasing the risk of injury and ill-health to workers and the general public. The Institution is also concerned about the proposed exemption from health and safety obligations of those who are self-employed, as many will work with equipment or chemicals, or require visits to other workplaces. Interestingly, the report identifies the inconsistencies of enforcement in local government.

IOSH applauds the suggestion to further centralise the strategy for enforcement and improve training to address this. At a glance, the changes to health and safety in the water industry will be minimal. The only changes that the industry may see is a simplification of legislation and guidance – which should help employers to understand their health and safety obligations with the use and simplification of approved codes of practice.

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