10 ways to tackle a ‘health and safety gone mad’ attitude

By Richard Vann16 March 2022

It is a phrase we commonly hear, regardless of the industry someone works in or the number of hazards in their workplace.

The perception that “the world has gone mad” when it comes to risk assessments, site inductions, and training regimes to keep safety front of mind.

Richard Vann, managing director RVA Group Richard Vann

People have a job to do after all, and there absolutely can be examples when safety mechanisms can be so rigorous, they become restrictive. Worse still, they can have unintentionally adverse consequences.

If someone is to visit a power station, for example, but they only need to access the administrative areas of the site for a short meeting,

it is ludicrous for them to watch the same lengthy video and/or complete the same detailed training programme as someone who has been asked to repair the electricity generation equipment at the heart of the facility.

In such a scenario, even the best intentions of the plant owner, and an unswerving commitment to everyone’s safety, could therefore have a negative effect. The visitor may zone out completely, overwhelmed by the level of irrelevant information, to the point they miss the detail they actually need to digest to stay safe.

There are other scenarios when safety measures have been purposefully considered, at length, and for all the right reasons.

It’s therefore usually a careful balance of common sense, managed by someone with the appropriate expertise, but communicated so that the responsibilities of everyone are understood and embraced. This is when I think the stigma surrounding safety – particularly the ”health and safety gone mad” statement – will start to subside.

So here are 10 conversation starters:

1. Whatever your attitude to safety, and however tricky conversations might sometimes be, we must keep talking about the topic. 
This is particularly important when thinking about safety incidents – some of which can be fatal. Because yes, this can be an emotive and distressing subject. However, we cannot be dismissive of the data, as the numbers aren’t merely statistics – they are lives lost and families broken.

The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) report – Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2021 – for example, makes for a tough read. There were 142 employees killed in work-related accidents in 2020, with an additional 60 work-related deaths among members of the public. The report introduction states that: “Fatal injuries are thankfully rare events”. But numbers of any scale act as a prompt to remind us that a safety-first mindset is crucial, however hazardous – or not – a workplace may first seem.

2. There are no degrees of safety, on a sliding scale. 
Something is either safe, or it is not, as you don’t know the tipping point between having a near miss and someone being killed. That’s why there can be no excuses surrounding decisions made – or not – to follow safety protocol.

3. The first stage in any process should be taking steps to remove or mitigate risk to the minimum practicable level.
Proactively appraising a situation and understanding the consequences of inappropriate behaviour such as ”corner cutting” is essential – and everyone has a role to play.

4. Think also about physical safety measures that can be taken to mitigate and manage risk.
These range rom more well-known actions such as the wearing of PPE (personal protective equipment) and the erection of handrails, to perhaps less obvious rescue measures such as how we would get someone down if they had a heart attack when working at height.

5. We should all work with the attitude that: “I want to go home tonight with ten fingers and ten toes”.
Because, what if a series of workplace behaviours saw several seemingly minor oversights coalesce, just once – when person A did X, person B didn’t do Y, and person C presumed someone else would take care of Z – with devastating consequences?

For similar reasons, we should cross even familiar roads and always look, regardless of whether nine times out of ten, there’s never been a passing car before. Because what if on the tenth occasion there is?

6. Remember that when it comes to safety, familiarity breeds contempt.
Try to establish an ongoing culture of communication and the re-evaluation of risk, by everyone involved. We are human, after all, and when a scenario becomes habitual or comfortable, we are scientifically proven to fall out of a certain behaviour. We therefore need to keep talking, from the bottom up, with no gaps.

7. Nobody, I am sure, would openly say: “I deliberately take risks at work”, or: “We don’t do things particularly safely on our site.”
However, a continued assessment of that safety attitude should take place, ideally steered by someone with the appropriate knowledge, before being embraced by all.

8. Yes, demolition is an inherently hazardous industry, but experienced demolition professionals know how to assess, mitigate and manage the risks.
This means keeping assessments relevant to the scale, type, and number of hazards at play. This does not mean comparatively less hazardous environments are risk free.

9. In saying all of this we absolutely must remain sensible.
We all have jobs to do, and in some cases the ”health and safety gone mad” statement is probably justified. Stay focused on reasonable and practicable measures, and if in any doubt, consult someone who can offer an experienced – and even impartial – ear.

10 Reactive safety strategies are also important.
These include the investigation of an incident, root cause analysis, reporting, the evaluation of learnings, and the implementation of improvements.

The world is constantly changing, and sadly it is not possible to predict every eventuality. But this responsive exercise – however imperative – means an incident has already happened.

So let’s explore what more we could do to prevent them in the first place.

  • Richard Vann is managing director of the global decommissioning consultancy RVA Group. Read his columns in the print and digital issues of Demolition & Recycling International

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