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Workplace Health and Safety: Dispelling the Myths

As a young boy, my dreams didn’t include wanting to be a workplace health and safety professional. In fact, I probably wasn’t alone in that—few people decide on this profession as a first career of choice. President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in 2013, speaking and training engagements all over the world—I often find myself asking how that happened.

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The Shopping Cart Incident

Age eleven is kind of where my story begins. I was a keen rugby league fanatic: same shaped ball as the game played south of Yorkshire, but proper rugby. (Sorry to the rugby union fans. If it helps, I now like rugby union as well.) I was spotted early on as a young kid with talent at the sport, mainly because I was bigger than other eleven-year-olds at the time and also faster. That made the game quite simple—just pass the ball to the big lad, and it’s a guaranteed try. I progressed in the sport, and by the age of fifteen, my life seemed to be fairly well sorted. I would just play rugby for a career, and life would be simple.

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Six months later the dream ended, not because of anything tragic like serious injury or anything. No, I just didn’t grow any more, but all the other boys of my age did grow. I was no longer the big lad with anything special, and sadly that was where my rugby league dream ended.

Now aged sixteen (I promise this story will get to risk eventually), I had a decision to make—stay on at school or leave. I did discuss this with my father who was quite clear; he was happy for me to stay on and further educate through A levels but not to resit exams that I may fail. The “may” bit here is quite important because although I went to school every day, my mind often wandered off to the dream of playing rugby at Wembley. This meant a lot of things I was being taught at school probably weren’t given my full attention, which of course meant that when it came to sitting the exams, there was a high possibility that I “may” not pass them.

As predicted, I failed my exams, so further education was out of the question, and taking my exams again wasn’t an option. So I had to enter the big wide world of employment. As a sixteen-year-old with no qualifications, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t have the best-looking CV, so my career aspirations were a bit limited.

In my local job center, there was an ad for a new retailer coming to Halifax. It was advertising for cart collectors for its new supermarket. With my academic ability and physical prowess, I believed this job description had been written for me, and the unique selling point to the job was that it was going to pay £36 (~ $46.50) a week. We had something called youth opportunity schemes around in those days that paid £27 (~ $35) a week, so I am talking big money if I could secure the cart job.

I applied, got interviewed, and, yes, became a cart collector for this brand-new supermarket.
The new store wasn’t opening up for three months, so I went out to a nearby store to train. Now, I’m not saying I’m smart, but three months training on carts? By day one I had cracked it, and by day two I decided I was ready to attempt the world record as to how many carts I could push up the parking lot slope. (The existing world record at the time allegedly stood at 49 carts.)

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I decided that if you are going to get a record, get one that is hard to beat, so I made the decision to go for 52 carts. Just imagine 52 carts all connected together in a huge line, and my job was to get them from the bottom of the parking lot slope into the foyer at the top. This is where I first discovered health and safety; manual handling in particular.

It took a huge amount of physical effort to get these carts moving. Eventually they moved, and as they started to move, it became a bit easier to get them up the slope. Things were looking pretty good for smashing the world record. I was within six feet of victory when tragedy struck.

The top five carts had come detached from the main group. They separated and started rolling back down the slope, gaining speed as they went. I remember praying for two things—first of all, that one wouldn’t hit a customer and kill them, and secondly, that a car wasn’t hit. The first prayer was answered; the second prayer, not so lucky. One of the carts went crashing into somebody’s BMW.

Now if that were your car, you wouldn’t be very happy. I remember the driver getting out, and he was good enough to teach me some new words, none of them complimentary. He then reported the incident to my manager who duly came out and gave me the counseling session of my life.

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My manager asked me how many carts I was allowed to push at any one time. I had a hunch that the answer wasn’t going to be 52, and based on her facial expression, I suspected it would be lower, so I guessed 40. Wrong answer—try again. So I went lower. 30… 25…? Still wrong. At this stage, she brought out the Health and Safety Manual (about 1,200 pages). She asked if I had seen it. I had a vague recollection of maybe seeing it as part of my induction the day before. She then turned to page 800 and asked me to read out what it said: “The maximum amount of carts to be pushed at any one time should be eight trolleys, and they should be secured together with the restraining strap provided.” She asked if I had seen that. I said I hadn’t. She then went to the back of the book, and there it was, my signature saying I had read and understood all the aforementioned procedures.

I got a final written warning on the second day of my first-ever job for breaking the workplace health and safety procedures. Believe me: a career in the world of health and safety was a long way away. But that experience told me from an early age that the time you are most likely to find out about rules is when something has gone wrong. So long as the signature is there in the book, that becomes the most important thing. Interesting that thirty years on from this event, the same story rings true in many organizations today.

What Does Workplace Health and Safety Have to Do with Risk?

What has all this got to do with risk? In simple terms, health, safety, and risk are all inherently linked. If we remove risk, then yes, you are safe, but how would you ever get to work? Cars have risk attached to them, yet we still drive them. Why? Because we need to get to work, so we take responsible risk in the way we drive.

I am privileged enough to carry out training for directors. I like doing it because when I ask them what they think about workplace health and safety, often the answer is that health and safety is the number-one priority in the business. Sounds like a great answer, but surely a more sensible answer would be that the number-one priority in our business is to be as successful as we possibly can, but in a safe way.

Why can’t health and employee safety be part of the business as opposed to being seen as a separate entity? For this to happen, some of the myths need to be dispelled.

My interest in the world of risk didn’t happen because I got a written warning for breaking the rules, but it was maybe the ignition source for my later questioning and challenging. I now know the rules for how many carts you are allowed to push. I found out the hard way. However, in order to follow the rules, I needed to use the “cart-restraining strap.” I searched high and low for it, but it was nowhere to be found. So I spoke to the other guys who pushed carts and asked them if they knew where it was. They had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained to them what the procedure was, and this was all news to them. It then became obvious to me that nobody followed the procedure. However, the only discipline that had been issued was to me. Why would that be? Ultimately, they hadn’t hit a car, and I had, further enhancing my belief that it only became an issue when it went wrong.

Eventually I found the cart strap—brand new, unopened. I was the first person to use it. I remember placing my eight carts in a nice, neat row at the bottom of the parking lot, tying them together with my new strap, and pushing them into the foyer at the top. This has got to be the best job I ever had—the sun was—shining, I was getting a tan, and on top of that, I was getting paid. What a great job. And it was—for about fifteen minutes.

After fifteen minutes, all the empty carts in the foyer had run out, and there were twelve customers waiting for my eight carts. Mathematically speaking, that meant four customers were going to teach me all about violence and aggression. I started to run as fast as I could with my rows of eight carts in order to keep up with the demand. But the queue of violent and aggressive customers was getting bigger.

Eventually my manager came out and began counseling session number two. My job was to keep the customers supplied with carts, and I was failing in that duty. I explained that if I could only push eight, we needed two more people to help. I was told there weren’t two more people, so do the best I could. “Do the best I could.” What does that mean in reality? To me, it meant “Push 25 carts,” as that was the only way I could service the customers.

It also meant that I was breaking the rules again. It was a catch-22 situation. If I followed the rules, I would end up fired because of my poor customer service. If I didn’t follow them and something went wrong, then I would equally end up fired as I was already on a warning. Not a good situation: sixteen years old, no qualifications, and on the verge of being fired from my first-ever job. I didn’t want to lose my job.

After a restless night’s sleep, I decided to ask my manager if it was OK for me to push 25 carts. She said I couldn’t. I explained that I could, as physically my body was in prime condition (unlike today). She said I couldn’t, as it would be breaking the rules. I understood that and said the only way the rule could be followed was with two extra people. And as there weren’t two extra people, then it needed to be 25 trolleys. I asked her again if I could push 25. She again said no as it was against the rules. I protested that the rules could not be followed and asked if she had the power to change them, to which she replied that she couldn’t as they had come down from head office health and safety. My next question to some extent ended up changing my direction in life: “Have they ever pushed carts or spoken to the cart pushers?” No answer. “How, therefore, can people who have never done the job or spoken to the people who do it write the rules?” This uncovering led to my world of progression in the health and safety field.

Responsible Risk

It’s a simple story with overwhelming repercussions, as, ultimately, the same things still happen. If the procedure really had to be eight carts, that would have meant two extra staff for every trading hour multiplied by every other store. That would mean a significant additional labor cost to the business. Do you think anybody worked the math out? I guess not. If they had worked out the math, the control would have been deemed as too expensive.

How many times have you heard the saying “safety at all cost”? No, it’s not. It should be safety so far as is reasonably practicable. That means you have to consider the cost, not just in financial terms but also in time, effort, benefits, and so forth.

Responsible risk should be the driving force for all businesses to succeed. I often challenge people who say I have to wear a high-visibility vest. I’m not against it so long as I know why I need it. I get told I may get hit by mechanical handling equipment or a lorry, but I’m only in a training room. It’s that kind of thing that frustrates people, and it also takes safety to a lower level as it is seen as bureaucratic, worst-case-scenario scaremongering.

Sometimes I never get a further answer, and it is left that I have to follow the rule, just in case. Sometimes, however, I get a sensible answer: “It’s not for your safety, Gerard. It’s so we can ensure that people who do need to wear them will always have them on. So having this rule makes it easier to monitor and enforce from a consistency perspective.” Great. Now I’m happy to wear it because I understand how my wearing the vest aids the safety of others. Alternatively, it may be a third-party customer requirement that everybody wears it—equally fine because it then becomes a commercial decision in that we want the customer to be happy.

Risk is not just about safety. There may be an insurance requirement to carry out something, and not doing it would have a detrimental impact on the premium. I may come up with a safety risk assessment that identifies that the requirement does not change the degree of safety risk; however, from a premium point of view, it makes sense to implement the control, which then becomes a commercial reason for doing something.

It is easy to band around the words “because of health and safety,” but often when you dig down, there may be a number of different reasons for doing or not doing something. It is this understanding that leads us towards truly grasping risk in the context of workplace health and safety.

Risk assessments are central to all good safety decisions. You could say in a business context these assessments are our planning tools. In other words, what could potentially go wrong? The controls are the elements that try to prevent a potential negative scenario from happening. They become our implementing tools. Therefore, if I see a control that I can’t understand in a practical sense, I will often ask to see the risk assessment that stated it was needed. And if the assessment doesn’t exist or has never been carried out, that means we have implemented without planning. Not a great business model. Imagine a pro football team turning up on a Sunday to play a big game without knowing whom they are playing, and the coach says the first eleven players to grab a jersey can play. I can’t see a positive outcome there. Is this really any different from putting controls in without truly understanding what the risk is?

There is a long way to go with dispelling the myths surrounding workplace health and safety. But if organizations use terminology like pure risk, commercial risk, third-party risks, customer requirements, and so forth in the overall context of health and safety, it will be progress.

This post was originally published in 2017 in LP Magazine Europe. It was updated August 30, 2017.

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