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Health & safety: more pros than cons!

20 May 2018

David Towlson explores how the business case for better health and safety performance is driving change in the food industry. 

Over 25 years the food manufacturing industry has reduced reportable injuries by around 60%. HSE statistics show that they fell from almost 2,600 every year to close to 1,000. While this picture is far from perfect at above the ‘all manufacturing’ average, it does still represent a steady improvement in performance.

Thanks to industry and regulator initiatives there is now a greater focus on occupational health among many food manufacturers. Both the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have been encouraging employers to initiate health surveillance programmes, particularly around occupational asthma, upper limb disorders, hearing loss, skin complaints and ill health from working in hot or cold environments.

The Food and Drink Manufacture Forum (FDMF), a partnership between Trade Associations, Trade Unions and the HSE, has set targets for improvement to 2021. This included a reduction in reportable ill-health and injury by 10% year-on-year from 2016, with a starting point of 1,002 injuries and 100,000 workers impacted by ill-health.

Industry motivation for achieving health and safety improvements is not solely around the strong moral case for protecting people from harm at work. The latest Food and Drink FDMF strategy of ‘sensible and proportionate risk management’ makes it clear that one of its primary objectives is to ‘support and enable business productivity and innovation’.

The business case
Historically, health and safety has been seen as something that gets in the way of efficiency in business. However, in reality, consistent research reveals that when impact on lost time is examined, it is nearly always the safest companies in the world that are also the most efficient, well-managed and the most profitable. Health and safety training in particular, at all levels, doesn’t simply develop understanding of risk analysis, but also supports balancing risks against operational cost.

Costs associated with injury and ill-health are widespread and can include process downtime and lost production, key worker absence, loss of reputation and management time and resources for investigation.

Molly Smith, a graduate and NEBOSH Diploma holder, is a health and safety professional who has worked at Nestle and recently moved from Weetabix to McVities to take up the role of health, safety and environment advisor. She believes the business case has led to significant improvements in health and safety culture in the industry, with employers pushing positive messages around health and safety to the workforce to encourage ownership and involvement. “At Weetabix the mantra was safety first. That’s a strong message. When coupled with behavioural safety techniques designed to not only challenge unsafe acts, but praise safe acts, it’s had a positive impact on morale,” she said.

“I think in the past people would see health and safety as an obstacle. Something that has made their job more difficult. Now I see people wanting to get more involved, more willing to go on training courses and support risk assessments. They’re volunteering, whereas when I started out in this industry only a relatively short time ago it was seen as more of a reluctant task.”

Formal training
Brendan Montgomery, also a NEBOSH Diploma holder, is BBS (Behavioural Based Safety) Project Manager at Cargill in the UK. He has experienced a similar shift in culture during his career. He said: “Employers have been willing to invest in my formal training and professional health and safety qualifications, but it is now going beyond that. NEBOSH, for example, has become important to those in supervisory or operational roles. It helps to outline what everyone’s duties are around health and safety and provides a better insight into hazards and how to manage them.”

Driven by the avoidance of costs associated with poor health and safety at work, it is clear that at least some parts of the food manufacturing and processing industry are now more willing than ever to invest in worker involvement and better health and safety practice to not only lower injuries and ill-health, but to boost business performance.

David Towlson is head of qualifications and assessment at National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health (NEBOSH).

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