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How safe are your choices?

Author : Peter Hall

30 November 2011

Small and medium sized companies are often those who need access to reliable and independent H&S information, but don’t know where to look for it. Peter Hall describes how a new register could help.

Peter Hall

Delivering services safely, to an agreed standard and cost, sounds like motherhood and apple pie for facilities management practitioners, but success is balanced on a knife-edge. When every aspect of service delivery depends on a supply chain, be that for products or services, how can you be sure that each one has the same understanding of health and safety management?

Risk management is often a role embedded in corporate organisations. The issue of compliance therefore doesn’t necessarily relate to the bigger contractors. Let’s take lift maintenance for example. This is a specialist technical service, no matter whether you are an in-house FM or part of an outsourcing team a specialist contractor will always be used to undertake the work. Lift contractors are more likely to be medium to large sized businesses that, by their very nature, understand the requirements of working in complex environments. They have tried and tested procedures, a systemised approach and often on-staff health and safety advisers. They are familiar with managing and mitigating risk. Outside of these obvious services however small and micro-sized businesses are often contracted because of their excellent technical skills and knowledge or geographic location. Their risk profile is significantly higher. Why, because the smaller organisations do not have in-house health and safety expertise, and often don’t know where to go for it.

Data captured by the on-line supplier accreditation system Altius, backs up the need for small businesses to adopt a more stringent management process to health and safety. Only 16% of contractors completing the Altius assessment criteria, employing 25 people or less, have an internal resource to manage health and safety, whilst even 60% of registered contractors employing up to 50 people rely on consultants. Many require additional support from the Altius team to bring their practices up to the standards set by facilities management outsourcers and clients alike. It seems that what a small business perceives as competent practice, does not match up to the expectations of the larger organisations.

Of course the onerous nature of managing risk and health and safety has been the subject of many a debate. The Government, sensing the public mood, published Lord Young’s report Common Sense, Common Safety at the end of last year. The report outlined a series of policies for improving the perception of health and safety, to ensure it is taken seriously by employers and the general public, while ensuring the burden on small business is as insignificant as possible. What it also highlighted was the unregulated nature of health and safety advisers to small businesses and suggested that an effort be made to accredit consultants in this area through the relevant professional body. Once the accreditation programme was in place, it was proposed that access to those consultants would be enabled freely via a web-based directory.

The wheels were thereby set in motion to create access to competent advice for those smaller businesses. When researchers on behalf of the government surveyed small business owners about the launch of the proposed directory, only 46% of those polled said they would use a register of accredited health and safety consultants to access professional advice. We can only assume that those businesses felt they already had access to competence and were taking the correct advice. Despite the forecasted low uptake, the project to professionalise health and safety advice rolled on.

A voluntary scheme (OSHCR) to accredit health and safety advisers set up by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and professional bodies such as the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, was launched in March 2011 with a view to being used as the basis for creating the directory. Any consultant applying to be on the register would need to be a chartered member or fellow of one of the professional health and safety bodies, primarily due to need for those members to actively demonstrate their record of continued professional development (CPD) in the field, to have an assessed level of knowledge, skills and experience and as a consequence of membership be signed up to a code of conduct with the participating institute. Since its launch over 2600 consultants have been successfully accredited and are featured on the on line directory (www.oshcr.org)

From the perspective of the consultants the project was a huge success. They were accredited and professionally recognised by the so-called ‘governing bodies’ of health and safety and had access to cheap advertising (there is only a £60 annual registration fee). Yet as predicted the small businesses, whom the Government targeted to support with the project, have largely ignored the scheme. The question is why? Is it because there is not a common understanding of what constitutes professional advice, is it a worry over additional cost or is it simply because the scheme and its benefits just have not been widely publicised?

The answer probably lies in answer to all three questions. With no signs of a brighter future on the horizon, businesses, no matter what their size, often question the need for ‘discretionary’ spend. As health and safety is in the business of minimising risk which cannot be quantified as a return on investment, the cost is perceived as an additional overhead rather than the cost of doing business. It is often the case therefore that the standards of health and safety practice are only called into question once someone has been injured.

The bigger question to answer is one of communication. Ask most FM practitioners and they won’t have heard of the OSHCR register much less ask their contractors if their health and safety advisers are part of the scheme. As part of the supplier accreditation process to work with SGP and its clients, contractors are asked if the consultant they use for their health and safety advice is OSHCR registered. More than 50% declared that the consultants they work with are not part of the scheme [from a sample of 800 contractors]. The question is therefore to all of us to use OSHCR as a benchmark for querying how our supply chain manages health and safety when they don’t have someone within the business with the requisite skills and experience. After all there is a critical impact for us and our clients. The supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Peter Hall is Director, Risk Management and Company Secretary at SGP Property and Facilities Management Ltd


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