Health & Safety Alert: Employees banned from putting up office Christmas decorations!

The view from Juice by Matt Cleve, Learning & Development Director.

Now, I know what’s just happened for some of you… you’ve just spat out your tea, thumped your desk in exasperation and said to yourself ‘What the…? That’s ridiculous! Political correctness gone mad that is!’ You’re probably about to call your colleague over and tell them how pathetic it all is and how the country’s going to the dogs, that you can’t do anything now-a-days, and what ever happened to personal responsibility. Well, I don’t blame you. I tend to have the same response sometimes. The trouble is this kind of reaction can have a huge impact on the health and safety of employees across the country.

The question is, are we right about this political correctness notion? Has it gone mad? Is it crazier than a morris-dancing mongoose, binge-drinking Red Bull? Well, if some of the headlines are to be believed, it probably is. Children banned from throwing snow-balls / playing conkers (delete as applicable); School Sports Day cancelled; Graduates banned from throwing mortar boards; Snowballing outlawed. Pretty much every day we see this kind of ‘outrage’ in the press, and pretty much every one of them is a creative myth or an incident taken out of context by a journalist looking for a good story, and hey, why let the truth get in the way of that, eh? The trouble is it puts people off health & safety. It makes them resentful of those who work hard to save lives and reduce injuries, and it often means that they believe that health and safety laws are there just to make their lives difficult.

It also creates a dilemma… how far do you go before you become the Health & Safety PC Police yourself? How much do you manage health and safety, and how much do you encourage your employees to take personal responsibility for their own wellbeing? As with all things in life, a good balance works best, but the rise in popularity of behavioural health & safety programmes in recent years has led to some employers not taking their responsibilities for the managing part seriously enough.

They pat themselves on the back for ‘empowering’ their staff whilst simultaneously under investing in equipment or imposing unrealistic time and budget targets to speed-up job completion and maximise profitability. Again, this can lead to workers feeling blamed, scapegoated, or just totally hung out to dry. Not a good recipe for a positive health and safety culture. In fact, the United Steelworkers of America once ran a campaign to ban ‘B.S.’ Their strap-line… ‘Eliminate hazards, don’t blame workers.’ No mistaking their feelings about behavioural health & safety programmes then.

But personal responsibility is important, right? Right. Of course it is. It’s a virtue that health and safety professionals evangelise about every day, and rightly so. But sometimes it seems that it has disappeared. Gone like hot British summers, or Tiger Woods’ veneer of urbane respectability, or ‘Texan’ bars… remember those? ‘Sure is a mighty chew!’ You don’t see much of any of those any more.

It’s all summed up for me in a current TV advert for that most ubiquitous of smooth operators, the personal injury claims lawyer! You know the one… the man up the ladder drilling a hole, he pushes against the wall, the bottom of the ladder slips away, the man falls to the ground… yeah, you’ve seen it, and where there’s a blame there’s a claim, right? But who is to blame? The hint is in what the man on the ladder says “I was given the wrong ladder for the job.” Ok, so your employer should have given you the right ladder, but unless they forced you up there with a cattle-prod, you didn’t have to use it did you? You could have said no… or perhaps you were afraid of being too politically correct? Or perhaps it was those unrealistic targets again? Are we spotting a pattern here?

Health and safety is a minefield, and there are three words in that phrase that don’t sit well together. The truth is though that it’s up to responsible employers to get the balance of their attention right. Clearly encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their own health and safety and that of others around them is vital in reducing deaths and injuries in the work place, but this has to be part of a holistic approach to the subject rather than a sticking plaster for organisatonal inadequacies.

The culture has to be a positive one. People have to want to do their jobs safely because they care about each other and they believe that the company cares about them. Employers need to make sure that all of their people are well trained and have the appropriate, well-maintained equipment to do the job properly. They need to ensure that there is a positive leadership in place that actively discourages excessive time and budget pressures, which could lead to acceptance of unnecessary risk. They need to keep processes and procedures up to date and encourage regular and positive employee engagement in health and safety discussions, and that includes speaking to the Unions, not because the law says you must, but because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s what it all hinges on really; what’s the right thing to do? What is it that will help to stop people getting killed or injured at work?

So, when the turkey, stilton and indigestion are but a distant memory, and 2010 comes knocking on your door with a shiny black piece of coal, what will your New Year’s resolution be? To give up smoking for the fourth year running? To finish decorating the children’s bedroom in that Barbie wall paper you bought in the 2009 January sales? Or will it be to focus your attention at work on making sure that both your culture and management with regard to health and safety are as good as they can possibly be?

It’s not an easy trick for any business, but the positive outcomes will make walking that particular tightrope well worth the effort. Just remember to use a safety-net… those PC Police? They’re everywhere.

From everyone at Juice, have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2010!

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