Pulling the plug on accidents and ill health

Increased awareness and training has also dramatically reduced the number of accidents in South West Water. In 1996 the company also made an extra £1 million in profits due to a comprehensive health and safety management system, explains Brenda Lee Browne of the British Safety Council (BSC).

Four out of ten senior managers in Great Britain fail to understand the importance of good safety practice, according to a comprehensive confidential survey of British Safety Council members. Just over half of the respondents found it difficult to persuade senior managers to fund essential increases in safety budgets.

South West Water’s Hayle Sewage Treatment Plant

Yet in 1996/97 almost 154,000 accidents were reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), while British industry loses up to £16 billion a year due to accidents and ill health, an estimated ten per cent of all UK company annual profits.

However, some organisations are doing their best to reverse that trend and there have been some success stories where senior managers and safety teams have worked together to create safe working environments and increase profitability. One success story is South West Water Services, in 1996 the company made an extra £1 million in profits due to a comprehensive health and safety management system.

The company’s pro-active approach to safety includes the managing director, the health and safety unit and the workforce, with avenues for the reverse flow of information. No health and safety policy is signed by managing director Bob Baty unless there is a cost benefit paper attached, showing how the new policy will be integrated into the business. There must also be a training plan, outlining the steps to equip staff to carry out their duties efficiently and safely.

At South West Water health and safety policy documents are integral, working components of the business and not just pieces of paper.

Increased awareness and training has seen the accident incident rates per 1,000 employees cut from 136 in 1991/92 to 56 in 1997/98. For Mr Baty the key to success is the role played by employees. “The last thing I want is to find people with the company who are confronted with something and are not equipped to know how to deal with it. That’s part of our training philosophy. People must be able to know what to do.”

South West Water has a health and safety unit led by health and safety manager Rob Gwyther, a health and safety team of five people and 50 health and safety representatives representing 1,800 employees. Mr Gwyther reports directly to the managing director.

At South West Water everyone is responsible for health and safety. “We go further than the statutory responsibility in empowering health and safety representatives to take action. They get first class training and equipment. They are our eyes and ears on the ground and they help us develop our priorities and our policies,” said Mr Gwyther.

The term safety policy is not often used, Mr Gwyther prefers to say “agreement to do something”. He explained why: “First of all we get the consensus and then we do what we say we will do. Bob Baty is a very important part of that process. Secondly, we have to train. The first people we train are the directors and senior managers, so that we can lead any training programme and Bob has a very high presence there. Thirdly, there is evaluation. Data to say “Is it working? Where are the weak areas?” so that we know where to concentrate next.

The company is managing the Frank Davies project, which is identifying the cost of typical accidents and ill health in the water industry. Mr Gwyther explained what has been done so far: “We looked at accident data from four water companies and we could then group the types of accidents which occur. We then carried out research with two front line managers from two water companies to see how much an accident cost.” The figures were verified by an outside consultancy and the result is that on average an accident costs £3,581 – this includes minor to senior accidents. Although there is not a figure yet for work-related ill health, the cost will probably be double the accident cost.

Mr Gwyther is excited about the project. “This is the first time that this kind of research has been done in the water industry. The co-operation between companies has been excellent. It has been a major undertaking.”

The next phase of the project is two case studies looking at health programmes at South West Water. Both will look at the cost to set up and maintain the programme against the cost of accidents and work-related ill health. The two programmes are called HAVS (Hand, arms vibratory syndrome) and WRULD (Work related upper limb disorders). Two groups of workers have been identified.

“Bob Baty would have these health programmes without the study being done as he sees that good health and safety programmes protect the employees. Any financial gains are a bonus. We aim to show that health programmes can be self financing,” said Mr Gwyther.

The company works closely with the HSE’s south west office, a partnership described as essential by Mr Baty. “Our view is that this productive local partnership can be underpinned by dialogue with the Executive at national level. Improvement can be well targeted and cost effective.”

South West Water’s success has come through training, recognising that heath and safety is everyone’s concern, not only employers’ and employees’ but also neighbours – the neighbours being contractors, suppliers, customers, the HSE and other water companies. Good neighbouring schemes will be the main focus of a BSC campaign during European Week of Safety in October. These schemes encourage large organisations to share their safety knowledge and experience with smaller contractors, working together to achieve best practice.

“The BSC believes good neighbouring schemes help small firms achieve best practice and ultimately achieve all the business benefits this brings for all sides,” said director general Sir Neville Purvis.

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