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Eye off the ball

Don’t publish your email address - the consequences can be distracting. A couple of mine are in the public domain, resulting in a sewer of feculence discharging itself regularly into my Inbox. This morning Alena - a 23-year-old from Ruzaevka in Russia and apparently employed as a gymnast or contortionist - emailed a photo of herself taken mid-routine, with the intention of “finding serious relations”. I’ve suggested my Uncle Adolf: he never cracks a smile.

But amongst the detritus I recently unearthed a press release from EFF, the manufacturers’ organisation, revealing the findings of a survey on “removing unnecessary health and safety burden”. This claimed that senior managers are “increasing their investment in, and commitment to, health and safety issues and continue to see significant benefits from this.” What proved most enlightening was the general tone of the paper, suggesting that managerial emphasis is now mostly on regulatory compliance and corporate liability, not the practical welfare of employees. Anyone with experience of trackworker safety will find familiarity in this observation.

Health and safety bureaucracy is increasingly seen by management as an insurance policy against the threat of liability.

Here’s a typical extract dealing with the impact of the compensation culture. “15% of respondents supported amending H&S regulations to prevent civil liability if a breach of the regulations imposed a strict liability. The Government has recently introduced a clause to amend section 47 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 as an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. This will remove the right to bring civil claims for breach of a statutory duty contained in certain health and safety regulations. This means that in future, it will only be possible to bring a civil action for breach of common law duty of care, on the basis that the employer has been negligent. This is currently the process for claims brought for breaches of the general duties of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This is a step in the right direction to help reverse the current civil litigation compensation culture and will help reduce perceived H&S regulatory burden on business.”

It goes on, “When companies were posed a series of statements about the possible effects of health and safety requirements…their views were generally positive. However, the balance of agreement with positive statements about health and safety requirements, i.e. benefits to companies as a whole, defence against compensation claims, quality, morale and long-term cost saving all dropped substantially between 2008 & 2012. The biggest change was the fall in the balance of firms viewing health and safety requirements as a vehicle for defending them against unjustified compensation claims, although almost half (49%) still saw them as fulfilling that role. There were some issues in terms of time and money resources spent on meeting health and safety requirements. Seven in ten companies had experienced an increase in costs and almost eight in ten an increase in time spent on health and safety compliance in the past three years.”

This all seems to reflect the experiences of many frontliners: a health and safety disconnect has opened up whereby management imposes ever-more onerous bureaucratic and process-driven edicts in order to reinforce its defences against possible legal action. Increasingly overlooked is the delivery of tangible benefits to those exposed to risk, largely because there’s no time left to focus on them.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. How can two attributes as inherently positive as being healthy and safe have become a national embarrassment? We only ever laugh at health and safety now, forgetting that thousands of workers have been saved from death or injury over the past 39 years thanks to the provisions of the 1974 Act.

You can’t really blame companies for adopting this malignant approach. Whilst many of us bemoan the erosion of personal freedoms, we must acknowledge that driving it has been an erosion of personal responsibility. People can now act in a manner that is stupid, unreasonable or reckless, and then secure the services of a no-win no-fee lawyer to seek financial redress when it all goes wrong. Some logic-defying cases have been successfully brought to court, involving pay-outs amounting to many thousands. The consequence is the backside-covering exercise that health and safety has become.

The consequence is the backside-covering exercise that health and safety has become.

There are currently around 200 statutory provisions with an impact on H&S, of which almost half are modifications, variations, orders, metrications and amendments to existing regulations. Whilst many have little practical effect, the resulting clutter creates a confusing sense of complexity. There is a clear need for consolidation; many believe that a 50% reduction in the number of regulations is a realistic target, without reducing workforce safeguards.

Having talked a good game about this since coming to office, Coalition action is now just around the corner. Implementation of additional civil justice reforms are due to be implemented in April through Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It is hoped that this will help turn the tide, forcing individuals to accept more responsibility for their actions.

What it mustn’t do though is let employers off the hook for failures that occasion genuine harm. Even if things stabilise in that respect, disentangling workers from valueless corporate-level bureaucracy - something Network Rail has embraced with gusto - will demand a culture change that won’t easily be promoted. Middle managers feel very comfortable in their paperwork cocoon, and turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

In an attempt to emulate the safety improvements brought by TCODs and ATWSs, Network Rail has raised expectations by procuring the next big damp squib: a fleet of workshop vehicles that will apparently allow the permanent way to be maintained from within them, while trains run at linespeed on adjacent tracks. Operating as self-propelled plant, they will incorporate a tools store, office, kitchen and toilet, as well as the protected work area.

Amongst the tasks to be conducted from within the vehicles are routine inspections, geometry measurements, grinding, welding and the replacement of fastenings. Network Rail is also redefining the laws of physics, enabling wet beds to be dug out and sleepers changed without access to the six-foot or cess.

Note to depot managers: please make space for these vehicles alongside the skip with your LOWS kits in.

Story added March 2013

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