In February 2001 Christopher Hooper, an independent Health and Safety Consultant, carried out a risk assessment for a client on a wood jig boring machine. Two years later, an employee of his client injured their hand while operating the machine. And, after investigation, the HSE decided to prosecute Mr Hooper under S.36 of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The case took a while to come to court, but in 2004 the Magistrates’ Court was told that Mr Hooper’s risk assessment fell significantly short of the standards required and, in effect, contributed to the accident as it failed to identify the danger of the machine snatching at pieces of wood. Although Mr Hooper had many years’ experience as a health and safety professional, he was not familiar with wood working machinery. Mr Hooper pleaded guilty and was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay £750 prosecution costs.
This isn’t the only instance of a professional person falling foul of the enforcing authorities[i] and HSE have since considered prosecuting Health and Safety advisors over the issue of providing negligent or irresponsible advice to their employers without thought for the consequences. This was the basis of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s complaint against the profession (sic) when he came to office in May of 2010 and led to the setting up of the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (OSHCR) in 2011.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has produced a Code of Conduct for its members, and Part 2 – Competence, requires members to “2.1 Ensure they are competent to undertake proposed work” and “2.4 Ensure that they make clients, employers and others who may be affected by their activities aware of their levels of competence”.
So what does this say about the skills of the health and safety practitioner? Well, a practitioner should first of all be competent to carry out the work in the particular area or discipline in which they operate. As far as the law is concerned, Regulation 7 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 places a duty on employers to appoint “one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed upon him by or under the relevant statutory provisions” and further qualifies this by saying, “A person shall be regarded as competent for the purposes of paragraphs (1) and (8) where he has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities to enable him properly to assist in undertaking the measures referred to in paragraph (1).”
So a practitioner should have the appropriate Knowledge, Ability, Training and Experience (KATE) to work with employers and employees in setting up management plans to deal with any risks identified in the workplace, ensure these plans are carried through and that any required training (refresher or otherwise) is put in place. Liaising with other departments in the organisation is also a key aspect of the Safety Practitioner’s job, and these “soft” skills are acquired rather than learned over a period of time when working with other people in the company – a certain amount of thick skin and patience must be developed if they are to survive!
Notwithstanding the above, the practitioner must be credible when giving advice to his employer and employees who may also ask for his help at routine team meetings and briefings. Practitioners should be able to give sound and up to date advice on legislation, standards and best practice when attending Health and Safety Committee Meetings, investigating accidents, setting up Risk Assessment Programmes and advising the management team. Practitioners should also seek to expand and deepen their knowledge by attending IOSH meetings and networking with other professionals. Taking a recognised professional qualification and joining an organisation such as IOSH which requires participation in a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme is a practical way to expand a practitioner’s skill base.
Finally, safety practitioners often find themselves in situations where they don’t know the answer to a problem, and the best are those who are the first to admit it. A good practitioner will always recognise their limits and there is nothing wrong in saying “I don’t know – but I will go and find out”. Seeking advice from other competent practitioners is a sign of maturity and confidence from an advisor who knows their own boundaries.
[i] In the summer of 2002, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease occurred in the town of Barrow-in-Furness in South Cumbria resulting in the deaths of seven members of the public and infection of a further 180 people. The source of the outbreak was traced back to an air conditioning unit at an arts and leisure centre owned by Barrow Borough Council. The Council and their Design Services Manager were both convicted of offences under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
Links – IOSH code of conduct: https://www.iosh.co.uk/~/media/Documents/About%20us/COR1081%20Code_%20guidance%20and%20disciplinary%20procedure.pdf?la=en
Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1999/3242/contents/made