How Health and Safety and Work is Made to Look Stupid and 2 Practical Principles for Getting it Right

By IANPEMBERTON | Published: 22/03/2012

Welcome to undercover health and safety clips where we use real examples of health safety and work – good and bad – to highlight universal lessons helpful to us all. My name is Ian Pemberton and I am managing Director of Human Focus – I am a health and safety specialist and I hope you find these insights helpful

If you are based in the UK you may well have seen recent press coverage of the so-called Walpole boating lake incident where emergency services where called out in March 2011 to recover the body of man who had fallen in to the water and drowned. Hampshire Fire Brigade have been pilloried by the press for their approach to this incident with headlines to the effect of “Health & Safety Has Gone Mad

The facts are these. Walpole lake is actually a shallow pond in an urban area of Gosport, Hampshire. It’s home to the local wild life and used, amongst other things to sail model boats. Simon Burgess, 41, was feeding the swans when it is believed that he had a seizure and fell into the water. The fire brigade was called and they arrived within five minutes to find Mr Burgess floating face down some distance from the shore.

However, the firemen attending decided not to enter the waist deep water. They told the inquest that they were complying with guidelines they had been given by Hamphshire Fire service which stated that their ‘Level 1’ training only allowed them to go in the water up to their ankles.” A key part of this decision was that they decided that Mr Burgess was already dead. But the coroner concluded that there was a chance, ‘albeit a slim one’, that Mr Burgess could have been saved had the emergency services intervened sooner. Let me repeat that, there was a chance, albeit a slim one, that Mr Burgess was still alive.

And so they waited some time for a specialist water rescue team to arrive. These officers were ‘Level 2-trained’, meaning they could ‘go in chest- high’. Using specialist equipment, these highly trained officers finally recovered the Mr Burgess’s body. After the event an enterprising journalist was photographed wading into the pond to demonstrate which added further fuel to the press coverage of this incident.

Later that year in August I was on holiday with my family in the United States staying at a beach house on Lake Michigan and was involved in a second incident I would like you to consider. Here are my kids in the lake. For those of you who don’t know – as you can see – this is not a small lake – it’s huge and is more like an inland sea. Literally moments after these photos were taken a man came running up the beach and shouted to get everyone out of the water – two men, about 200 yards up the beach, had just been dragged into the lake by the waves and a strong rip current and were missing! We were later to find out that both were young and strong swimmers – we suddenly realised the conditions were extremely hazardous.

The local fire brigade and life boat services turned-up very quickly and went straight into the water. The fire men searching in-shore were highly trained and used specialist equipment to prevent them from being dragged out. The search went on for 2 days – there was tv crews every where and the emergency services were treated, quite rightly, as heroes. The red cross even turned up to provide them with refreshments and support. Unfortunately, the bodies of Brad Stoner, aged 22, Dan Reed, aged 46, were eventually recovered 2 miles further up the beach.

As part of this I got chatting to the local sheriff and I asked him about water safety in the lake – his response was – “anyone who goes swimming in the lake when its like this, doesn’t know lake Michigan”. So, I enquired, does he or his family go swimming in the lake – he looked at me surprised – “of course, all the time – just not when it’s like this.”

So, here we have two incidents, involving health and safety and work, where the emergency services responded in very similar ways – both employing highly trained officers with specialist equipment and carefully designed rules of operation. The difference of course is that at Walpole lake the rules did match the situation where as on Lake Michigan they clearly did. It transpires that Hampshire Fire had based their system of water rescue on government guidelines designed to cope with fast moving flood water – but had decided to apply them to all water conditions. And so as we have noted in other presentations, these officers were literally set-up to fail by inadequate organisational arrangements.

I have the greatest respect all emergency service personnel and I am sure that every single one of them has put their life on the line for others in the course of their work. This incident was not their fault. Indeed, as you can see with the supervision of my own children – when it comes to managing risk we are all fallible! To their credit Hampshire Fire have accepted the criticism and have said the following:

After this incident and subsequent internal debrief, we reviewed our water rescue policy and made changes based on our findings. These changes are in response to identified gaps in the existing policy and suggested changes by our staff.

Safety Rules

One interesting point, which was certainly true in the Walpole lake case, is that it is often “safety rules” that are used to justify crazy decisions. Like banning children from playing conkers in the playground, or indeed, preventing emergency services stepping into a shallow boating pond. But the fact is, there are very few prescriptive rules in health and safety legislation. All of Europe now has the same so called ‘risk-based health and safety regulations’. This means employers decide for themselves, via risk assessments, what controls are appropriate for their operations. Any rule book that exists, is almost entirely formulated by the employer themselves – rules come from their risk assessments. So, if health and safety looks stupid – the problem is not the government or regulations but how employers interpret them.Stupid rules are not just bad press – they are also dangerous. As we have seen, rules can prevent those at the sharp end from taking appropriate actions. So how can employers get this balance right and develop intelligent rules? Well, it begins by recognising 5 common pitfalls…
  1. Rules can be too broad – covering to many different operations or situations – as in the Walpole Lake incident – there was one approach to any water rescue over ankle depth.
  2. They can be too detailed – I have seen situations where you would need a wheelbarrow to carry the rule book around – it just overwhelms employees with finite detail that they don’t have any hope of remembering. Rules need to be kept simple
  3. To vague – this is different from pitfall 1 – here a rule is focussed on a specific process or operation but does not give sufficient guidance to the decision maker
  4. They can be Past their sell-by-date – the world changes and so must rules – you have got to have a way of monitoring them
  5. Finally – they can be mindless – where they have just evolved without thought. No one has asked if they make sense

2 Practical Principles for Intelligent Safety Systems

Now, you maybe be thinking, particularly if you operate in a smaller organisation – how on earth do you get this right? It’s all too complicated. Well, the good news is that for those who know what they are doing there is a couple of very simple principles that can almost effortlessly avoid these pitfalls and develop intelligent rules – which by the way – not only power high standards of health and safety, but also quality, productivity and staff morale.

The first is really simple and is based on this question – if those emergency services had been left completely to their own devices do you think they would have waited or gone straight into the boat pond? I am guessing they’d have gone straight in which would have been entirely appropriate. The point is there’s often a disconnect between t front line operatives and the rules. And so the first principle is simply to connect them by getting them involved! They are the experts and they know when a rule is mindless, or past it’s sell-by-date. If you ask them they will tell you. If you involve front line operatives then you will get a living breathing system that effortlessly adjusts itself.

But employee involvement alone is not enough. So, the 2nd principle is – there also have to be effective risk assessments – and unfortunately the general standard out there is very poor. And, if you want effective risk assessments – you need people who know what they are doing – they need a high standard of risk literacy. Risk literacy – what does this mean? Well, for example, if I had said to my kids – you can never swim in Lake Michigan because 2 people drowned – that would have been an illiterate decision about risk. It would fail to understand the hazard and the fluctuating nature of the risk – some days there is virtually no risk – others it is significant – what’s needed is different responses – today you can’t swim, tomorrow you can.

And yet, this type of “all swimming is banned” decision is all too common – its what’s at the root of so much of the “health and safety has gone mad” press. And so the next time you see this type of headline you will now know that it’s not health and safety regulations that are to blame, but rather someone who with low risk illiteracy has made a bad decision.

But it does not have to be like this. Take as a case in point the following example (see video above) where a uk manufacturing company has implemented these simple principles – employee involvement and effective risk assessment. They’ve found that if they get those at the sharp end involved, and provide them with training, then the rules of operation come naturally; are intelligent; and best of all, everyone is signed-up to making them work.

Implementing This Knowledge – Training From Human Focus

So what is the standard of risk literacy in your organisation? Do those at the sharp end understand how to get involved? Do they know what to look for and how to help develop intelligent systems of work? Do those with overall responsibility for systems of work and rules of operation have good risk literacy?

If the answer to any of these questions is – “there is room for improvement” then why not consider getting everyone to take the full version of this training session which includes knowledge tests? From there, the Human Focus e-Learning system can provide an unrivalled library of RoSPA Approved video training courses in this area. This presentation has given you a brief taster – these courses can now take you many steps further with your health and safety and work standards. For example, they can help recruit the involvement of all employees as well as developing high standards of risk literacy amongst those charged with undertaking risk assessments.

Contact us and we will be happy to talk you through your options. Finally, if you have found this presentation helpful, please tell others – you can easily email the link to this page using the Share button underneath this video.