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Responsible approach to managing risk in facilities

28 July 2020

Discussing whether FMs should be expected to take full responsibility for the implementation of appropriate risk management strategies within their facilities.

Many FMs and their service provider partners have found that the highly important topic of managing risk has taken on even more emphasis in recent months, adding further relevant to this annual PFM feature, due to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown.

As the situation has continued to unfold, the majority of those in the FM sector will have been faced with dealing with a number of issues that no one has experienced previously.

Those in their 60s or 70s may have experienced situations such as industrial action, including the ‘winter of discontent’ and the three-day week in the 1970s, economic downturns and other times of increased levels of attrition, but the UK-wide closure of businesses and facilities is unprecedented within this and the majority of other countries around the world.

Members of the PFM Editorial Advisory Board (EAB) have related how their facilities have been transformed, many at very short notice, to provide safety and reassurance for workers returning to their office.

Within this, managing risk will continue to be a major area of concentration.

However, the expansive role of the FM means they will already be responsible for a vast swathe of risk assessments, in many cases, which will have been further extended due to the various measures planned and implemented to reassure workers and keep them as safe as possible.

In order to gain further perspective, we asked industry experts whether it was reasonable to expect FMs to take full responsibility for all areas of risk management strategies within their facilities.

Swiftclean managing director Gary Nicholls says there are now so many aspects of keeping any property safe, healthy and compliant that it hardly seems fair to expect an FM to be able to handle everything, especially when it comes to risk management strategies.

“In practice, however, the FM is usually the responsible person in law – the buck stops with them – whether this seems fair or not."

Inevitably the FM will need to employ some specialist suppliers, as there are some more niche areas which require expert knowledge and experience, so partnering with a specialist provider who can deliver these is essential.

The wise FM will look for specialist suppliers with a long track record of excellence and a proven, well-respected reputation, Mr Nicholls continues.

“You should be able to rely on this supplier to get to know your property, recognise and identify for you the potential risks and hazards and advise how best to minimise them.

"The true expert provider should be able to do a lot of your forward planning, as well as implementing critical work for you, and, these days, above all, they should provide robust reporting.”

In an increasingly regulated industry, Mr Nicholls says robust documentation which proves that you have done all that is required to manage your risks is almost as important as doing the work well, and can be a critical defence in law, or when dealing with insurance companies.

“If you have strong evidence of work done thoroughly, professionally and in compliance with the relevant risk management protocols, the responsibility for the FM becomes more manageable.

"Our advice would be to appoint expert suppliers with established memberships to accredited bodies which promote best practice and encourage accurate documentation.

“BESA and its excellent BESCA certified VHE scheme is a case in point. You should also look for membership of organisations such as the Legionella Control Association, or similar relevant industry bodies which govern the areas covered by each supplier,” says Mr Nicholls.

Further thoughts are provided by Consultant Services Group sales director Nick Rastelli, who says: “This is a complex question, but overall I don’t believe it is reasonable or feasible to expect FMs to take sole responsibility for implementing appropriate risk strategies.”

At a strategic level, organisations need to take a centralised approach to risk management, with ultimate responsibility sitting at board level. Areas of risk are likely to be diverse – from data and finance to health and safety – and identifying appropriate strategies will involve the skills and knowledge of a range of people.

“The term ‘appropriate’ is tricky in itself,” he continues. “Is it ever possible to be certain what is appropriate when it comes to risk strategy? As the current Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, risk is unpredictable and sometimes has to be managed on the fly.

"Even when parameters are fixed, different people have different views on what’s appropriate.”

Setting that aside, when it comes to the implementation of risk strategies a partnership approach is vital, says Mr Rastelli.

In a large organisation, strategies are likely to be cascaded through risk officers, heads of estate, client FMs and contractors.

If sole responsibility for implementation sits with one person and even a small mistake is made, the risk still exists and therefore has not been managed.

Even in a small business, with just one FM, risk strategies need to be set at board level and systems of checks put in place to avoid too much individual responsibility.

“In summary, I see risk management as a collective responsibility, with high-level stakeholders setting appropriate strategies and their implementation a team effort. Expecting an FM to take sole responsibility for risk is, in my view, inherently risky,” Mr Rastelli concludes.

Mr Rastelli raises a highly relevant point in his comments regarding the term “appropriate”.

This can be found in numerous areas of health and safety legislation and is often something that is regarded as open to interpretation and Mr Nicholls provides some helpful thoughts in his comment above.

When creating and implementing risk management strategies, FMs are also advised to contact their local HSE inspector or representative wherever possible to determine the correct interpretation of any areas they feel need further clarification.

Previous HSE responses seen by PFM have usually confirmed that as long as risk assessments have been carried out and actions can be seen to have been taken to mitigate risks in as many as possible, they will be seen to have acted responsibly and lawfully.

None of us are perfect and is highly unlikely that facilities will be able to remove every element of risk, but as long as they can be seen to have made the effort to understand, assess and implemented relevant actions they will have a strong case in defending any claims of wrongdoing in the future.

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