HSE drive targets the near miss

The waste and recycling industry's record on health and safety is poor. Nick Warburton asks the HSE's head of operational strategy what is being done to improve standards

There is one health and safety incident that rarely appears on the industry’s radar – the near miss.

As tragic as any fatality is for the person involved, not to mention family and friends, and as distressing as any major accident and injury is for all those affected, the importance in recording a near miss and changing a work practice as a result cannot be overstated.

By recognising a near miss and learning from the experience, more serious incidents can hopefully be avoided in the future, saving lives and preventing injury. That is what the best in the industry do already, argues Stephen Williams, head of operational strategy at the HSE.

“The petro-chemical industry, transport industry and pockets of other industries have been recording near misses for a number of years,” he says. “What we want is for the waste industry to really look at best practice across other sectors and learn the lessons.”

Figures published by the HSE in June 2011, reveal that the number of workers killed in the waste and recycling sector from April 2010 to March 2011 had tripled compared with the previous year.

Williams points out that the number of fatalities has varied significantly each year since 2005-2006 but the underlying message to take away is that any fatality is unacceptable regardless of the figure.

Part of the HSE’s drive to instil best practice in the waste and recycling sector is an onus on industry to measure leading rather than lagging indicators of health and safety.

These include measures like the number of safety talks that are given to front-line staff to raise awareness of risks and good working practices. They tell the company how well it is performing on health and safety issues.

“The waste and recycling sector has a very poor accident and ill-health rate compared with other sectors,” says Williams. “The more leading indicators you can measure as opposed to lagging indicators the better.”

For its part, the health and safety watchdog, as part of a wider package of interventions to drive up standards, will be promoting a number of key messages. High on the list is ensuring that staff at all levels is competent.

Williams says that the role of supervisors is particularly important, drawing attention to risks before work commences. “The immediate and simple front-line assessment of the work is extremely important,” he says.

The seriousness in which health and safety is being taken in the waste and recycling industry is evident from a letter published by the workplace safety minister Chris Grayling last March, which singled out the sector as a priority for improvement.

On the back of its 2009-2013 work programme, the HSE has already introduced
a series of visits to local authorities, who are significant purchasers and commissioners of waste and recycling services.

Ideally placed to influence the procurement process, the HSE wants councils to ensure that from the outset of a contract there is a crucial dialogue about how health and safety standards will be achieved and clarity over who is responsible for what. In other moves, the HSE’s lead inspectors are working with leading players in the industry to promote best practice while also focusing on hotspots that are causing problems.

One of the biggest challenges for regulators comes from the increase in recycling activities. The sector is undergoing huge technological change and there is far greater human intervention. Williams insists that the industry must take the lead and design for safety.

“It’s a crucial concept and that is making sure you have a holistic look at the way you set up, for example, a waste and recycling plant,” he says.

“A key lesson that we want the industry to think about is how do we design for safety so that it isn’t a matter of chance but is inherently built in to plant and processes?”

It’s the right approach but what about companies that are looking to invest in existing premises where there are in-built limitations? “You should still make that risk assessment and say, ‘We are where we are, what should we be doing now to make sure we are meeting our legal obligations to reduce risks as far as is reasonably practicable?'”

For those sectors where technological problems can’t be “designed out”, for instance, in kerbside refuse collections, it comes back to staff competence, says Williams. In this case, it’s about instilling a cultural message that it’s not wrong to ask for help if a load is too heavy, and coupling this with the correct training and suitable protective clothing.

“One of the areas where we want to look at carefully with the industry is the ill-health risks,” he says. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that ill-health risks associated with refuse collection could be quite big, depending on the way it’s done.”

Like other Government departments, the HSE has seen its budget slashed in the spending revenue. With the impact on front-line staff, is there not a danger that health and safety standards will slip? Williams is quick to respond.

“Because this is singled out as a priority programme, we are proactively inspecting in this industry,” he stresses. “Resources are certainly going into this area and we will continue to regulate the sector where necessary.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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