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An inside view

15 May 2023

In an ever-evolving climate, taking the pulse of the industry to get a snapshot of key areas affecting health and safety professionals in their roles is vital, says Ryan Plummer.

THE COVID-19 pandemic threw health and safety, and personal protective equipment, right into the limelight and has changed the landscape significantly. From scrambling to access items in short supply amid high global demand, through to now managing PPE procurement in a time of rising costs, skills shortages and an ageing workforce – all atop a growing sustainability agenda – the industry has, and is, undoubtedly facing a multitude of challenges.

As a result of this rapidly evolving landscape, with the aim of uncovering some of the most pressing issues, we surveyed more than 700 respondents working in health and safety roles in the UK from sectors including food and beverage, manufacturing, energy, public services, aerospace and rail industries. The resulting report, ‘Under the Surface of Health and Safety’, has provided some great insights into the challenges health and safety professionals are facing now, and what their priorities are for the future.

Growing confidence in protective capabilities

The confidence of both an organisation in its ability to protect employees, and the confidence of employees and end users that they are adequately protected, has grown since the pandemic, according to our report. The 69 per cent of respondents who felt more confident in their organisation’s ability to protect employees is almost matched by the 65 per cent of end users who shared this confidence, and that’s great news for the industry that has faced such disruption and uncertainty. The highest levels of confidence were illustrated by respondents in the construction, food and beverage, retail and distribution, and energy industries – all at 82 per cent. This was in relation to the selection of correct PPE, but the numbers were very similar for the provision of safety from physical harm. 

Employee compliance is a business-critical area, and thankfully, confidence levels in compliance were high in our survey, particularly in the manufacturing and construction sectors, at 80 per cent. Training and development is also recognised as a key factor in employee compliance levels, cited by almost two-thirds of respondents. 

But where the confidence is lacking is in the selection of the right PPE, an area where almost a quarter of respondents cited ‘fairly confident’ or worse, which is a worrying statistic considering the right PPE is crucial to safety. With a notable disparity between confidence to protect and confidence in correct PPE selection, it’s very clear there’s still some work to be done around education of the product options available, and utilising the right expertise to help in the selection while helping buyers meet other criteria such as budget, and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) requirements.

Attracting a younger workforce 

The threat to a wide variety of industries, not just health and safety, is a skills shortage, and it is one that almost topped the risk chart in our survey at 51 per cent. This was trumped only by inflation at a single percentage point, as a definite risk factor. Attracting a younger workforce has long been a recognised industry requirement, and this is a one that our survey testified to. Almost three quarters of our respondents were male, and more than a third of those were aged 54 and over. 

The younger decision-makers, in the 18 to 39 age bracket, were in health and safety officer roles, and many of these have additional responsibilities in their remit like sustainability and ESG. It’s a pertinent issue: 39 per cent of respondents were concerned about the impact of climate change on health and safety, so developing strategies and optimising sustainability should be a very important element for these professionals. However, renewable considerations were very low ranking among survey respondents. With less than a quarter (23 per cent) ranking it among their top five criteria when selecting PPE, there is a huge knowledge gap here. 

And yet, the innovation in sustainable PPE options just keeps growing and growing. Whether it’s products made from recycled materials, products that are biodegradable, better quality single-use options to avoid multiple changes, and washable and reusable solutions to negate single use, the options are just getting more plentiful. Seeking help from expert suppliers on these options, and in developing and meeting sustainability goals when procuring PPE, is the most positive and logical step any health and safety professional can take. 

Supplier collaboration must be embraced

The paramount criteria for PPE procurement, according to almost half of our survey respondents, is suitability of product for the specific need. It was also listed in the top five criteria by 84 per cent of respondents. Yet, our survey also highlighted the real challenges facing buyers of PPE in this area, which were around finding trustworthy products, lack of new product and technology knowledge, and finding the best buys within budget parameters. When the top procurement criteria is suitability of product, but the buyer isn’t armed with the product knowledge to select the best option, at the right price from a trustworthy source, it’s an almost impossible situation.

The only way that those responsible for procuring these products can overcome these barriers is by working collaboratively with suppliers. A good supplier will hold the right knowledge with regard to application suitability and the latest innovations and technologies. Organisations can be put off by a perceived higher cost, but they will quickly discover that working with a supplier can actually help to lower costs through access to a wider breadth of product combined with a vast product knowledge, to help them make the right choices first time. With finding trustworthy products being a key challenge highlighted, collaborating with a trusted supplier can also negate the pitfalls of buying cheap or from unverified or unethical sources, which can actually lead to quality or even compliance issues if the products aren’t fit for purpose, or counterfeit.

PPE manufacturers, suppliers and solutions specialists are all in a great position to help educate health and safety professionals through the sharing of information, best practice and through consultative services that enable them to achieve their goals and address their pain points – some of which have been highlighted in our report. We hope that by shining a light on some of these challenges and priorities, professionals are encouraged to find out more about the options available to them that they may not have known about or considered. At the very least, we hope they feel less alone in these challenges and more empowered to overcome them.

For the full results, download the RS Safety Solutions ‘Under the Surface of Health and Safety’ report.

Ryan Plummer is senior director for RS Safety Solutions. For more information, visit www.uk.rs-online.com