Dr Karen McDonnell

06 June 2016

What are the best ways to get employees fully involved in health and safety?

When I think about worker involvement in health and safety, one particular episode of Ricky Gervais’ The Office springs to mind.

Given the task of providing training to the new girl, Gareth spends 10 minutes teaching her how to position a mug on a PC, and how to lift a box with her knees and not with her back.

It’s understandable that, with images like this in the media that have persisted for decades, employees may just see health and safety procedures and training as another box to tick – particularly those just starting out in the world of work, who still think they are invincible.

And while we all make efforts to change perceptions of health and safety in the workplace, we also need to ensure that staff are on board. So it’s not surprising that one of the main questions we get at RoSPA from employers is how best to ensure their workers are fully engaged.

In 2009/10, RoSPA was funded by the HSE to take a look at worker involvement and what it looks like in practice, and developed the report Worker Involvement in Health and Safety: What Works? We had open discussions with a range of businesses and pulled together their experiences to develop a list of tips.

Top of the pile, which may come as no surprise, is to be patient, as the process of engaging workers takes time, particularly if they see you as their “Gareth” from the outset. Some of the businesses we spoke to said it took up to five years before they were happy that processes were embedded.

Make sure directors and senior managers visibly support worker involvement culture, by personally addressing meetings, sending out messages, instructing managers, and leading by example.

Explain why you want to involve workers, and what it involves; try out an employee survey, and make sure to act quickly on suggestions. When receiving suggestions, either via the survey or another method, make sure that person gets feedback, even if they answer is no – if that’s the case, tell them why. It’s important to show their feedback is valued, even if it’s not something that can be implemented.

All personnel at all levels, from CEO to the new apprentice, must be engaged, so it might be wise to use different tactics. Take everybody’s views into account, including shiftworkers and part-timers.

At first, implement an anonymous system of reporting complaints or problems. This will be helpful at the initial stage, to help people to feel comfortable, but once worker involvement is more embedded, this may no longer be needed.

Ensure that workers know there is a genuine no-blame culture – worker involvement will not happen without this.

Talk face-to-face with staff; try taking small numbers of staff on regular safety walks around their work environment, but make sure you are visible. Consider taking staff to another organisation where worker involvement it working.

Ensure that health and safety representatives have training in how to be representatives, not just health and safety. This should cover facets such as eliciting views, presenting a case, feeding back to colleagues, etc. Even in most of the best examples of worker involvement that we found, there was no training for representation.

It is also worth ensuring that representatives and managers are trained in soft skills.

People are generally reluctant to volunteer as a representative of employee safety, so it may be worth having a quiet word with those you think would do a good job.
Make sure that any joint health and safety committees have a workable balance of employee representatives and managers; managers involved, particularly the most senior ones, may consider leaving part of the meeting to make sure employees are not intimidated from speaking out. The need for this to happen will diminish as they grow in experience and confidence.

To read more of the report, see

Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)