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The best leadership is workforce leadership

23 January 2013

Engaging workers in health & safety initiatives is increasingly proving key to their success .Neal Stone explains why this approach is proving a winning formula for the 2012 Olympic Development project In our pursuit

Engaging workers in health & safety initiatives is increasingly proving key to their success .Neal Stone explains why this approach is proving a winning formula for the 2012 Olympic Development project

In our pursuit of healthy and safe workplaces we rightly concentrate on the need for clear policies, effective systems to identify and manage the risk of injury and ill health, and the presence of skilled, competent practitioners to advise, guide, and train managers and workers.

What we often overlook is the importance of engaging all workers and actively involving them in taking responsibility for identifying and dealing with health and safety risks.

But, this is easier said than done; regrettably many workers across all sectors still view health and safety as someone else's responsibility or as an issue that does not impact on them, or their workplace, directly.

The various projects that form part of the construction of the London 2012 Olympic Park are marked by a guiding philosophy of getting all of the workers to buy in to playing their part in identifying and managing risks to their own and their co-workers health and safety. Why is it that much is talked of effectively engaging the workforce but the evidence of successful approaches is thin on the ground? Can you have soundly managed health and safety without active workforce involvement? The evidence says not.

HSE has identified three components that are vital to the successful delivery of the strategy, "The health and safety of Great Britain" - leadership, workforce involvement and competence. But, leadership is not the sole preserve of directors and managers and what is crystal clear is that we need more workers to take responsibility and themselves provide leadership.

There will undoubtedly be some readers who feel that the cost of embedding a positive safety culture is a step too far, particularly in a time of tough economic conditions. But the consequences of not embedding positive safety behaviour could be much more costly - in financial and human terms - to the injured worker and the business.

In Great Britain in 2008/09, the rate of major injury across all industry sectors was 105.1 per 100,000 employees. In construction, although the rate of major injuries has steadily fallen over the last ten years to 254.1 per 100,000 employees, the rate remains the highest of any main industry group and is almost two-and-a-half times the overall average across all industries.

So far, the major accident injury rate across the London 2012 projects is not only far lower than the construction sector rate but far lower too than the rate of major injury across all industries. This achievement is down to the entire London 2012 workforce.

'Near miss' reporting is positively encouraged across all of the Olympic projects. There is abundant evidence from across the various projects that the completion of 'near miss' reporting cards has become the norm rather than the exception. Workers not reporting 'near misses' are routinely challenged by their colleagues about why they are not supporting the system and protecting the safety of their colleagues.

Support breeds confidence Individual workers awareness of what constitutes a risk of injury has increased as has their confidence to report accidents and 'near misses' knowing that they will get management support if the job, as a consequence, has to be stopped for safety reasons. Examples also abound of incentivising reporting with some contractors having award schemes for vigilant individuals reporting 'near misses' and others exemplifying corporate social responsibility with local charities benefiting financially from rewarding 'near miss' reporting.

There is clear evidence from the various Olympic Park construction projects that heightened workforce awareness of risk and a culture that encourages open and accurate reporting of accidents and 'near misses', including prompt remedial action, does have a positive impact on the accident frequency rate. It may appear illogical that increased near miss reporting can and is accompanied by a reduced frequency of accidents but the evidence is clear - identifying and effectively dealing with the causes of the 'near misses' is in all workers interests and is key to making construction workplaces safer.

Recognising success In 2009, I had the privilege to chair the adjudication panel for the Olympic Delivery Authority's (ODA) first ever Health, Safety and Environment Awards and had the opportunity to see up close the difference that an engaged and supportive workforce makes to the achievement of well managed health and safety. What impressed the judges was that all of the entrants for the awards demonstrated not only a whole-hearted commitment to creating a safe and healthy working environment across all of the London 2012 Olympic projects but steadfastly applied that commitment to their performance, day-in, day-out.

Huw Preece, a ganger with Barhale Construction, was the worthy winner of the ODA's 2009 Worker of the Year Award. Huw's work - although perhaps lacking the glamour usually associated with the Olympics (he was working on the Olympic site's foul drainage and pumping station) was marked by passion, vigour and enthusiasm. He communicated this to his colleagues, not just through words but in his day-to-day actions, inspiring safe working practices.

Huw played a key role in securing the commitment of his colleagues to drive safety improvements and achieve the very highest standards of health and safety. Colleagues paid tribute to Huw for speaking out to ensure safe working and when necessary stopping work to address safety issues.

Awards as the ODA's SHE awards have a vital role to play in helping to publicise best practice and share the wealth of knowledge that is being developed which has relevance far beyond construction.