Employers of all sizes have a responsibility to keep employees safe at work, while there are obvious benefits to ensure staff remain fit and well too. Jo Faragher looks at what’s expected of small firms
Complying with health and safety regulations may seem low on your list of priorities when you’re keeping a small business afloat, but statistics from the Health and Safety Executive paint a dramatic picture of what happens if you do not. In the UK during 2014 and 2015, 1.2 million people suffered from a work-related illness, 27.3 million working days were lost due to illness or workplace injury, and 142 people were killed at work.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health and safety of staff and anyone who may be affected by their work and, for those that employ more than five people, to have a written health-and-safety policy and perform a risk assessment on the workplace. Failing to meet your legal obligations could result in a hefty fine, and if there’s an accident covered by the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013, it’s a criminal offence not to report it.
“Your duty is to keep employees safe, as far as practical, as well as those who come into contact with your business,” says Laura Page, Crime and Regulatory Solicitor at LHS Solicitors, FSB’s legal services provider. “If your paperwork is inadequate, this may mean you’ve not gone through the risk assessment process properly.”
The threat doesn’t stop there. Someone who sustains an injury could bring a personal injury claim, or the resultant reputational damage from an employee getting hurt or sick could affect custom. Taking steps to promote health and safety is also good for business – many larger companies will not take on smaller contractors that don’t comply with certain health and safety standards.
So where should businesses start? “It all comes down to what you expect people to do at work,” advises Health and Safety Consultant Sean Conry. “An office-based business is a low-risk environment compared with manufacturing, where you’ll be working with a lot of equipment. Assess where the risks are, and take steps to do something about them."
The law requires you to appoint someone ‘competent’ to do a risk assessment, but this could be you as the owner. Walk around the workplace and note any hazards – these might be piles of paper that represent a fire risk, or flammable substances not stored properly. Then record any significant findings, and make a plan to address those risks.
It’s also important to communicate with staff on risk – for example, if protective equipment reduces a hazard with a certain piece of machinery, they need to know. “Your risk assessment won’t keep people safe if you don’t communicate what employees are meant to do, and how it’s linked to their work,” adds Ms Page.
You should also consider individual needs when drawing up your risk assessment and policy, as some workers will have particular requirements. For instance, those with disabilities may have particular evacuation needs during a fire, so draw up individual plans with them. Newer workers, or those operating certain machinery or at height, for example, will also need closer scrutiny and more regular supervision.
Once the risk assessment is done and recorded, don’t just file it away in a drawer. “Health and safety is not a one-off event,” says Mark Dalton, a Health and Safety Consultant at Hetheringtons Solicitors. Set up a programme of inspections of the workplace and its equipment. If you have new employees, or circumstances change – for example, you launch a new product that requires different equipment – then it’s crucial to look at your risk profile afresh.
When it comes to fire prevention, again, every business with more than five people is legally obliged to assess its fire risk and remove any hazards. The Fire Protection Association advises that companies designate someone in each department or on each floor who is responsible for the safety of the occupants and will look after evacuation, guiding people to safety. You also need to carry out regular inspections of fire protection equipment and training, and keep a log of when these took place.
Having to be aware of so many regulations can feel onerous – in a recent survey, FSB members said health and safety was the third most burdensome type of regulation. Policy Director Martin McTague says it’s a “delicate balancing act” to ensure you have a safe workforce, and FSB has called for the regulations and level of inspections to be simplified for smaller firms. The HSE has produced simplified guidance that can help small businesses at hse.gov.uk/simple-health-safety.
Custom Planet, a printwear provider, recently redesigned the layout of its factory to improve efficiency, but found this process went hand-in-hand with creating a more safety-friendly workplace. “The primary objective was to create a better workflow, but one of the subsequent bonuses of doing this is we’ve created additional space around each machine and more comfortable walkways throughout the factory and eliminated any hazardous areas,” says Director John Armstrong.
Paul Reeve, Director of Business and External Affairs at the Electrical Contractors Association, says organisations often underestimate the wellbeing element. “There are three main strands to the legislation: health, safety and welfare,” he says. “But if you don’t get welfare right, you won’t get anything else right, because you started in the wrong place.”
Employee wellbeing could incorporate ensuring employees have well-designed chairs, thereby reducing the risk of musculo-skeletal complaints down the line. “Good ergonomics demonstrates an employer’s commitment to their employees’ health and wellbeing, which can help attract and retain quality people,” adds Jerry Hill, Health and Environment Specialist at NatWest Mentor.
Many business owners will baulk at the cost of bringing in a consultant or investing in equipment when they already have enough overheads to consider. But the alternative could be unlimited fines or even imprisonment, says John Robb, Segment Manager for Commercial Buildings at emergency equipment company Eaton. “There are costs associated with health and safety,” he says. “But the consequences for your business could be catastrophic if the systems aren’t in place and something happens.”
If your business has more than five employees, you need to have a written health and safety policy.
It should include:
A template is available at hse.gov.uk/risk. FSB members can also access health and safety advice and training at fsb.org.uk/benefits
Jo Faragher is a freelance business journalist