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Workplace Accidents – worst case scenario and drivers to health and safety (1)

Setting the Scene

I’m pretty sure if you are taking the time to read a health and safety blog you are quite familiar with the 3 main drivers that lead to companies aiming to achieve sustainable health and safety performance: moral, legal and financial.

A Personal Perspective

Therefore let’s consider the consequences of a fictitious accident due to health and safety standards failing – from two perspectives: first the personal story of the injured party, Rob and his family, and secondly from the point of view of the organisation. This is not a bad scenario to use as a provocative and emotive sledge-hammer on the first day of training to a new audience to ensure it gets everyone in the room singing from the same hymn sheet from the outset. Some of the comments below are designed to be inflammatory. We shall be exploring the effect that a horrible accident will have on the person, their friends and family, the role the health and safety drivers play (moral, legal and financial) and in the next blog post, the impact of this accident on the company.

Objective of the Scenario

The purpose of this Worst Case Scenario is to attract people’s attention because the audience has a vested interest in the actions and their consequences and to listen more attentively to the safety message. Its purpose is to capture the ‘buy in’ of individuals who ordinarily don’t want to listen to a health and safety message.

Assumptions – The facts are not entirely accurate; it is a very subjective account and exaggeration has been used for dramatic effect. The accident outlined is horrific; the company is not fairly presented in order to provoke an emotional reaction.

Setting

A serious accident has taken place 3 weeks earlier. Rob fell 3 meters from a ladder landing on a patch of rubble. As a result, he suffers multiple broken bones including a fractured skull which causes a bleed into the brain. He has suffered permanent brain damage, as a consequence he is left with diminished mental functions and impaired movement. Due to the extent of the injuries he is left incapacitated; his life has been inexorably changed.

The Moral Drivers

Moral drivers to health and safety
Moral drivers to health and safety

When we work for someone we shake their hand and enter into an agreement. For example Rob agrees that he will provide the employer with 37+ hours of his life per week and his particular skill-set and in return, they shall provide him with a salary so he can pay his mortgage, support his dependents and go on holiday once a year. They will also provide Rob with the rules, equipment and knowledge he needs to keep him and others safe whilst at work, and he agrees to follow these rules. This is their contract forging an obligation between employer and employee. Therefore this accident at work is not just going to affect Rob and his employer, but also his friends and family. They will have it far worse. The first person in his life who would have to make a very hard decision is his wife, who, it could be argued would have 3 possible paths to choose from:

  1. She leaves immediately
  2. She stays until she believes that she has fulfilled her moral obligation
  3. She stays right the way through until the very bitter end

As I see it, he has an obligation not just to his employer but also to his family who waves goodbye to him every morning, confident that he will return home safe and sound.

The Legal Drivers

Legal drivers to organisational health and safety
Legal drivers to organisational health and safety

This Worst Case Scenario creates 2 potential outcomes for Rob: he could be prosecuted by the HSE under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for his failure to co-operate with his employer and his failure to take reasonable care of himself and others, but in this case they do not. Let’s consider if a personal prosecution is designed to act as a punishment and deterrent to the rest of society, any prosecution would only make his situation even worse. The threat of a personal prosecution is removed when the company chooses not to prosecute. However civil litigation is pursued when the company’s standpoint is presented.

The Financial Drivers

Financial drivers to health and safety in the workplace
Financial drivers to health and safety in the workplace

This accident has left Rob incapacitated. He is unable to return to work and unable to go and work for someone else. But he still has a mortgage to pay and dependents to support. He needs money to put food on the table. So he approaches his employer and asks them for financial assistance. His employer says “Now hang on a minute there Rob, I have spent a lot of money, time and effort providing you with everything you need to keep yourself safe: knowledge, training, experience, equipment, rules and systems. I have given you everything you need to know the difference between right and wrong, safe and dangerous. I have fulfilled my corporate responsibility. I put it to you that on the day of your accident it was not me, the employer who failed you. It was you! You did something that you knew to be wrong, you knew that the company would have disciplined you for it, you ignored your training. You would not have instructed a trainee employee on those methods because you knew them to be dangerous. I have provided you with the tools to make a coherent decision. I think that I, the employer, have behaved responsibly towards you and that on that fateful day it was, in fact, you that decided to act in an unreasonable manner. At that point you chose to step across a line, into your own personal and social accountability and therefore you are responsible for the consequences.”

“So I guess that’s a no then…”

His next step is to pick up the phone to a ‘no win no fee’ solicitor. They are only going to take his case if they are sure that they can win. If he can’t find one, he will have to pay for his own representation.

Fortunately he finds a ‘no win no fee’ solicitor who contacts his employer to corner them with the two options “show me the money” or “see you in court”. Once agreed that they are in fact in a dispute and on a collision course for war, his solicitor books a court date. Now getting this heard in court is not going to be instant and it takes 9 months to get into court for the first time. Now that is the beginning of the case which could go on, days, weeks, months, years, even decades. So let us say it takes over a year for the case to be resolved (1*). Now for all of this time Rob might not be getting paid, his employer could have dismissed him or be withholding payment. This money is part of what he would be seeking in compensation. The reality for him is that he has to be in a financial position to support him and dependents, whilst paying the mortgage to ensure the luxury of keeping their family home. He also has bills to pay; he is incapacitated so he is going to need full-time care from either a family member (who would have to give up full-time employment) or pay for a carer. Either way, this will be removing a second salary from the family budget, Rob’s being the first. He also needs to factor in specialised medical support to help his rehabilitation that is unavailable on the NHS.

Clearly an accident isn’t just going to affect Rob, but also his friends and family. This kind of accident will result in lives being split before Rob had his accident, and after Rob had his accident.

Part 2 of ‘Worst Case Scenario’ from the company perspective is next week

1*         http://open.justice.gov.uk/courts/civil-cases/

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