The Safety & Health Expo returned to London’s ExCeL centre last month after three years’ absence, and huge changes in the profession and health and safety landscape in that interim.
Safety Management attended the show, which was held over three days from 17 to 19 May, to find out how we are reflecting on these changes and to hear the latest advice on all the big topics.
A ‘tidal wave’ of mental ill health
We know that employers have a duty to manage work-related stress. Peter Kelly, senior psychologist at HSE said however, that we need to get better too at supporting workers suffering from mental ill health conditions whether they arise from home or work, or both. “We [as employers] have copped out before, we’ve said, it (mental ill health) is happening at home.” With one in three of us suffering from anxiety or depression at some point, mental health should be far more normalised than it is at present. “It’s not a weakness – join the majority!” he enthused.
Kelly said that the pandemic and the global recession have acted like "two tectonic plates" creating a "tidal wave of mental ill health." Specifically, 822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2020/21, up from 600,000 cases in 2018/19. It means that 17.9 million working days are now lost each year to the issue. “This is going to be the seminal issue for the next ten years,” he underlined.
Ultimately, his advice was very simple: show empathy and compassion for your colleagues. When there is widespread stress in a company, look at what may be ‘systematically wrong’ by doing an organisational risk assessment. “We have to make work a place that promotes health, not ill health,” he said.
Spotting the signs
Bruce Durham, a specialist in people engagement and body language at Huddle Culture spoke about how to spot sensitively when a person may be in trouble. “People will not always tell you how they are feeling, but they will always show you,” he said. He demonstrated how common body language signals – for example, crossing arms, touching the nose, or covering vital organs – can show if a person is uncomfortable. “Great things happen when leaders lean into connection and empathy,” he urged. “People will give more of what they perceive to be the truth.”
Turning weakness into strength: Louis Theroux
Mental health and wellbeing also featured in the talk by Expo headliner, Louis Theroux. The Joe Exotic and Weird Weekends documentary-maker has publicly talked before of how he lives with manageable anxiety, and here he discussed how this vulnerability helps him be good at his job as a journalist and interviewer. “I have a talent for building rapport, a willingness to be vulnerable – I’m not presenting a façade. It’s about being present,” he said.
Theroux spoke on stage in interview with Ian Hart, editor of SHP. Asked what his strategy is for communicating effectively to diverse people, from drug addicts to white supremacists, Theroux said he looks for the chinks in people’s armour. “You can reach people more through their weaknesses, than their strengths.” He found the pandemic challenging when it came to keeping his team feeling supported working remotely. “Misunderstandings can fester when you are working solitarily at home. [People can feel] wounded.” He said regular checking-in and communication was key.
Tall building safety – ring in the changes
The ink has barely dried on big changes to building safety law. Indeed, the Building Safety Bill, which achieved Royal Assent in April, contains a lot for fire and building safety professionals to get to grips with. At Firex, the show co-located with the Safety Expo, we heard from HSE about the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) function which will sit within it. Its responsibility covers high-risk buildings which are 18 metres or seven storeys and above and which can be residential, care homes, or hospitals.
Tim Galloway, deputy director of the Building Safety Programme at HSE, explained: “We will be assuming the position of the building control body for those buildings but we’re not going to work alone. It will be a multi-disciplinary team – we’ll draw in building control expertise and fire and rescue expertise to help us make our decisions.”
Under the new regime, companies planning to build a high-rise building must first get their design plans approved by the BSR from a fire safety perspective. This is called ‘Gateway 1’ (G1). The BSR has now processed around 470 of these G1 applications since August 2021. “We look at the site layout, how emergency vehicles are going to access the building, what consultations have taken place and what account has been taken of advice received,” Galloway said.
A quarter of these applications have given 'concern' and a further quarter 'serious concern': “We are actively challenging the perspective that fire safety is a bolt on, that you don’t design it in, that you call in a fire engine or someone else at the late stage with the qualifications. Fire safety ought to be integrated in those early stages.”
Gateways 2 and 3, which deal with the process of construction and change management, are still in development by the BSR and are expected to come on stream by October 2023. Galloway urged companies to start preparing now. “Make sure people in critical roles know what they’re doing. I’ve come across directors of health and safety who have never done health and safety.”
We also heard at Firex from Gill Kernick. Kernick lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell from 2011 to 2014 and seven of her former neighbours died in the fire. She now works with senior executives in high hazard industries to develop the culture and leadership to prevent catastrophic events.
Reflecting on the past five years since Grenfell, she said that the industry still has a ‘head in the sand’ approach. “The industry is waiting to be told what to do through legislation rather than work as hard as it can to develop solutions. We need to move beyond a compliance approach if we’re serious about safety. But doing so means the industry needs to change and history tells us we’re not very good at that.”
She said she would “never forget the words” of the blog written by a resident eight months before the fire that said, “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlords”: “We now know residents were actively raising concerns, but they were not listened to. Can we say that this has shifted in the last five years? I can’t with any authenticity say I’m happy with progress or that Grenfell will be a defining moment in this industry.”
Unfazed by the introduction of the new Building Safety Act, Kernick said that there’s a danger that new regulations will mean more paperwork unless people act purposefully and to save lives: “We need to remember the limitations of regulatory responses – they are reactive. We need to move from bureaucracy to leading from principles and values.”
Trends in sentencing
QC David Travers recently prosecuted WH Malcolm after the tragic death of an 11-year-old boy at a rail freight terminal. The fine was £6.5 million – the highest fine since the Hatfield train crash of 2000. The boy had easily gained access to a depot with his friends to retrieve a football and was able to climb on top of a stationary freight wagon, where he received a fatal electric shock from the overhead line.
Travers said the company’s second appeal against the fine was rejected in court in April. He said this shows that where a high level of harm and culpability can be shown, the courts won’t be lenient. The Judge had reviewed evidence: a surveyor had, some years before the incident, urged the company to do a risk assessment for the depot and to put up fencing around it. This was not done.
“When you get a report, read it,” he advised. “When safety professionals give advice, take it. Every board member should be cross examined about the decisions for which they are responsible – saying ‘I left it to [Johnny] on site' is not the answer.” He indicated that fines could continue to creep up.
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