The past 40 years has seen a change in the way that businesses look at occupational health and safety. Changes in business practice particularly, but not exclusively, in the manufacturing industry mean that good OHS practice can (arguably will) lead to improved profitability.
In the 40 years since the UK’s ground-breaking 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) came into force, there has been a huge change in the way that health and safety at work is viewed. Back in the day, workplace accidents were regarded as, well, an occupational hazard, especially if you worked in a dangerous environment such as a mine or a factory.
That attitude started to change with the introduction of the HSWA. Even so, the cost of complying with the requirements of that Act and similar legislation was assigned as part of the overhead. Protective clothing and equipment, training, safety manuals and the rest came under the same heading as cleaning, repairs and general maintenance. In other words, it was stuff that had to be done if you were running a business – whether you wanted to or not.
The cost of workplace incidents
Gradually, however, it has been recognised that workplace “incidents” – for want of a better word – can be much more expensive than might at first appear. Even relatively minor injuries, such as a back-strain from incorrectly lifting a heavy package, can result in lost working days and reduced efficiency.
In more severe cases, employers can be heavily sanctioned for these “minor” failures. Just over a year ago, an agency worker was awarded more than £44,000 in damages for back injuries sustained when lifting a washing machine in a warehouse. The court found the employers negligent, and in breach of their statutory duty by failing to provide proper training and instruction.
Substantial hidden costs of serious workplace accidents
More serious workplace accidents can have an even bigger impact, of course, with substantial hidden costs. These can include lost sales and damage to the reputation of a business, in addition to the more obvious cost of repairs, renovations and replacements that may not be fully covered by insurance if negligence is proven.
The application of digital technology, particularly to the manufacturing industry, which has accelerated rapidly over the past 20 years or so, has added a further dimension to the issue of safety at work. Computers are, of course, ubiquitous in the modern office, and this has raised a number of safety issues such as the need for correct set-up of computer screens and the use of appropriate seating.
But it is manufacturing that the digital control and automation has had perhaps the biggest impact. Increasingly, production lines have robots and machines that integrate programmable logic controllers, vision, colour and movement sensors, drives, motors, and relays, counters, monitors and switches.
These automated lines can run at speeds which are unattainable with electro-mechanical systems. Typically, confectionary products can be wrapped and packed at speeds of up to 50,000 units an hour, while on pharmaceutical lines, strips of tablets will be formed, collated and packed at even higher speeds.
Automated safety equipment integrated into production lines
However, it is worth making the point that, to achieve these output speeds, automated production systems need to have advanced safety features integrated into the process. As with the actual production equipment, the safety devices are largely automated: on a line wrapping and packing 40,000 chocolate bars an hour, there’s no use relying on an operator to shut down machines; if there’s a problem – human reaction times aren’t fast enough. Similarly, if someone puts their hand too close to the business-end of a press turning out 500 steel components a minute, a warning from a fellow worker (even if there was one close enough) isn’t going to prevent a nasty accident.
So these automated lines have purpose-designed safety equipment that does not rely on human intervention. This includes devices such as infra-red safety light curtains to prevent unauthorised access to or interference with machines or equipment, and vision sensors and digital interlocks to monitor machine performance against possible failure. It’s not the cheap option, but by enabling production lines to run faster for longer, safety equipment and systems will deliver a direct return on investment that is greater than that achieved by production equipment without these safety features.
Looking anew at safety – across the commercial spectrum
It’s a new way of looking at safety, and it’s arguable that it’s one that should extend across the commercial spectrum, not just in a production environment. On this basis, it would be the norm for businesses to provide office employees with such tools as: effective handling equipment to prevent the aforementioned back-strains; regular eye tests and specialised seating for those who make extensive use of computers; protective gloves for people who handle certain products; and – perhaps above all – good training for everyone involved with identifying safety issues and implementing solutions.
Improved safety requires investment, of course, but as with high-speed production equipment, that investment can have substantive benefits. Preventative measures such as those outlined above should lead directly to reductions in injuries, and improvements in efficiency, which can be directly related to measurable increases in productivity and profitability.
Return on Investment for Occupational Health and Safety
All businesses are used to allocating cost of sales against revenues, and to measuring return on investment in capital equipment. But maybe it’s time for OHS practitioners to persuade their employers to look at their activities in the same way. It should not be difficult to develop metrics to analyse the cost of workplace injuries/accidents, which would enable “cost of safety” to be set against improved production/income achieved as a direct result of faster working, reduced downtime, improved uptime, and less wastage. And that is without considering the intangible benefits, including a potentially improved public image, a happier workforce, and higher quality working.
Are you interested in NEBOSH training? Click on NEBOSH to find out more.