Last month (October) the HSE released its latest health and safety statistics. Workplace fatalities have remained level in the UK for the last five years. Employers are no worse at looking after their workforces, but they are not improving either. Construction recorded the highest number of work-related deaths and serious incidents of any sector, within which power and energy firms conduct much of their operations. Most responsible firms have a zero-incident policy, and rightly so. So what is going wrong?
Contractor working – the challenge to get everyone working safely together
According to the HSE’s Step Change in Safety, a campaign specifically launched to improve safety in oil and gas, four out of every five incidents are due to human behaviour. The findings may offer nothing new to seasoned safety managers, but communicating behaviour change across organisations, especially those that employ contractor organisations, remains a challenge.
A pumped storage scheme project in South Africa was shut down last week (November 4) following the death of six workers, and injuries to seven others. Construction firm Eskom also shut down operations at all its other sites, pending the result of company-wide safety inspections. The focus has already fallen on the safety procedures of Eskom’s contractors. Despite engaging with contractors through safety forums and other initiatives, Eskom claims safety concerns are not being taken seriously enough.
Whatever the investigations find, the issue of successful communication appears to have been raised again. How do you get contractors to buy into the best practice safety paradigm, and how can it be best policed and supported with ongoing dialogue to keep the message fresh and urgent?
Encourage reporting – get rid of the “fear factor”
Earlier this month, three Filipino workers were absolved of blame following a damning report into a blast that killed them on a Gulf of Mexico rig operated by Black Elf. The company originally cited “poor training” and “lack of English skills” as causal factors, but US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said the deaths “were caused by a number of decisions, actions and failures by Black Elk and contractors retained by Black Elk while conducting construction operations.” Contributory factors included “ineffective communication among contractors; and a climate in which workers feared retaliation if they raised safety concerns.”
Any fear of reporting accidents or “near misses”, whether consequences are real or imagined, presents a huge barrier to communication. How can proactive reporting be effective if those that need to speak out are too frightened to act?
Change behaviour with proactive safety reporting
Changing behaviour takes time. A consistent, systematic programme of training and action is the best way to challenge workers’ behaviour. Importantly, it will keep health and safety at the front of their thinking throughout the lifetime of a project, not just after a site induction.
One recognised method to encourage better communication, and lose any fear of reporting that might exist, is to encourage proactive safety behaviour within employees and contractors. A programme of structured observations, site tours or talks, and ad-hoc reporting with clear lines of communication back to health and safety managers encourages workforce buy-in, acts as a constant reminder, and facilitates continual communication with workers at all levels. Line managers as well as health and safety managers need to take a lead, visible role in challenging behaviour and advocating communication. By reporting near misses, trip or slip hazards proactively, you’re taking the first steps towards behaviour change.