Features: September 9th, 2011

Faced with anxiety over potential job losses and extra pressure in overstretched departments, for staff in the public sector, occupational health and safety has never been more important. This feature looks at cutting costs without cutting corners

Public service health and safety professionals gathered in Oxford to discuss how their departments can take the Government cuts on board, without cutting corners with safeguards for employees and members of the public.

The National Safety Symposium is held annually by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and attracts health and safety experts from a variety of public sector bodies, including healthcare, councils, emergency services and education.

Bruce Phillips, chair of IOSH’s Public Service Group, said: “This year’s conference will be focusing on something that is close to the hearts of all working within the sector – cutting costs, without cutting corners. “The majority of health and safety professionals working within the sector, will have had to deal with cutbacks in line with colleagues in other departments. The key, when looking at making cuts, is to find practical solutions to ensure health and safety standards don’t slip.”

Peter Roddis, health and safety manager at Nottingham County Council and speaker at this year’s event, said: “The cuts have focused our minds and our activities. They have forced us to pass responsibility back to managers to take action. We’re creating conditions where managers are held accountable and are forced to take action to manage health and safety within their own areas.”

Nottinghamshire County Council, like many local authorities, is providing more focused support directly to areas of risk priorities identified by audits, inspections and accident investigations.

Mr Roddis added: “At the same time we are simplifying our policy and guidance, providing simple toolkits to enable managers to understand what is necessary and take action. We have changed our training, moving away from long sessions to short, sharp briefings, and made greater use of open learning.”

Nick Cornwell-Smith, chairman of the Association of Police Health and Safety Advisers and speaker at NSS, said: “We have seen a fair amount of upheaval in the public sector so far and I am sure there is more to come. Bosses, managers and elected members within the sector need to be aware of the risks of cutting corners when cutting costs. Health and safety is vital for any public sector service at this time, as less staff often means more strain and staff need supporting through this. If managers start cutting corners when it comes to the health and safety of their workforce, then potentially, we could see a rise in accidents and illness in the workplace.”

He added: “Going forward, cuts in the UK’s police forces could potentially have an impact on the occupational health of officers.” “During these challenging times, officers will be under increased levels of stress and pressure. This will come as a result of uncertainty in jobs and personal finances, the proposals from the Hutton and Windsor reports on terms and conditions of employment, as well as worries about cuts to wages and pensions. Many people don’t like change and forces all over the country are restructuring, reorganising, slimming down. All of this has an impact on how officers and staff work if they are not managed correctly.”

Public service bodies are focusing on saving money wherever possible at present. However, history and experience show that saving money can often mean cutting corners on standards of health and safety. A prime example of cutting corners leading to disaster was the King’s Cross fire of 1987. In the 1980s, when the London Underground was faced with cost cutting, they specifically made cuts to cleaning and maintenance. The fire itself started when a commuter discarded a burning match that fell through a wooden escalator onto flammable material that had not been cleared away. As a result, 31 people were killed.

Occupational safety and health is a statutory requirement for all employers and if cuts are made then the risk of non-compliance with legislation, accidents and enforcement action could increase. Health and safety professionals and all managers facing tough decisions need, to some extent, to prioritise their workloads and ensure those areas that need most attention receive it.

Following the announcement of the spending cuts back in October 2010, the Institute produced guidelines for all mangers to follow when cutting costs, to ensure the health and safety of their staff is not at risk. These included:

• Assess the effect of proposed changes on the control of hazards in your workplace
• Ensure your department’s re-organisation leaves adequate levels of trained and competent staff in areas which can have a safety impact
• Make sure staff are kept fully abreast of organisational changes before, during and after they happen – and monitor their impact
• Provide training and support to staff with new or different roles

Bruce Phillips, chair of IOSH’s Public Service Group and former health and safety manager at Dublin City Council, said: “It’s vital that all managers remember how important the health and safety of their staff and the general public is. And before any cuts are made, the impact of them must be assessed thoroughly. Cutting corners in occupational safety and health can mean risking lives – it’s an essential area of any workplace we need to protect.”

Nottinghamshire County Council’s Peter Roddis added: “The public sector will continue to be one of the biggest employers across a diverse range of services that include potentially high risk activities. “People seem to think that the public sector presents a low level of risk, but unfortunately we still experience fatalities, serious injuries and work related ill health. The Barrow legionella incident provides a prime example of the terrible consequences of poor health and safety management in this sector. The sector enforces health and safety and so needs to lead by example, not only by ensuring compliance, but by taking a sensible and pragmatic approach to risk management.”