A Safe System of Work

I have been lucky in my life to only feel a tangible fear of catastrophic personal injury twice.  One of those incidents occurred at a visit to a Scout Group firework display in a small village on the outskirts of Sheffield; Dore.  Amazingly given the event was held 15 years ago I can still feel the chill in the air on the small, muddy, barely lit field.  Villagers were streaming in through the one obvious entry point with customary excitement.  The packed field gasped as the bonfire, a huge haphazardly assembled mountain of assorted flammable objects (predominantly pallets), was set alight.  As an aside if the industry could formulate a coherent strategy for pallet return, exactly what % would be added to respective bottom lines?
There was, that night, a stiff breeze, helping the bonfire go from damp pile to raging inferno in seconds.  Given the breeze and bonfire construction, a small, but statistically significant proportion of the pile was unstable and prone to floating through the air as the crowds beneath jostled for position to avoid the burning debris.  Luckily as the fire matured this threat appeared to subside and the crowd’s confidence appeared to rise from a shaky start.  After a further, very cold 15 minutes (continually wishing for an escape to the accommodatingly warm pub over the road), the display commenced.  The firework operations team consisted of three portly middle aged men frantically bolting from platform to platform lighting fuses at random.

No risk assessment had taken place.  There was no safe system of work.

The prevailing wind had not been considered, the ramshackle platforms factored in (two of which collapsed at one side mid-display) nor the potential risk in angled firework placement.  The next 10 minutes felt like, I can only imagine, people experience when in a live combat situation.  I remember clearly, at the pub later likening it to being in the Matrix as rockets flew centimetres over our heads in glorious slow-mo HD.

Now, unlike professionally managed displays there was a complete breakdown of control surrounding the arrangements, and regard of the risks, and likely consequences of operating in the chosen manner. 

Thankfully a continual focus on workplace safety from the government, HSE and employers has led to gradual improvement in death and injury at work rates.  The graph below shows a downward trend from 600 + deaths per annum when we started officially recording the statistics in 1974 to a consistent pattern below 200 this decade.  This represents around one person for every 200,000 going out to work annually, which is one more than it should be.

There is also a less pronounced trend in reducing numbers of non-fatal injuries at the workplace.  From a high in 1997 of around 0.70% to 0.45% in 2011-12.

The statistics suggest that the journey towards ensuring the safety of people at work requires constant vigilence and strong management.  There can be few industries where this is more important than in logistics.

The second occasion where I felt in danger of serious personal injury was whilst at a warehouse of a soft drinks manufacturer.  Not a modern purpose built premises, but a legacy, poorly designed site, innapropriate for the growing operation.  Numerous slim aisles, tight corners with poor visibility and packed to the rafters with fast moving product.  In the mid-afternoon rush to get product onto trailers destined for the supermarket Distribution Centres, FLTs sped around the site sounding their horns as they approached corners.  Increasing the noise to deafening levels, but always leaving the impression that stopping in time would be a problem if the pedestrian were not being careful.

Risk assessments and safe systems of work should not be treated as a chore that have to be updated periodically prior to a quality systems audit; they should be integral to and drive how we operate. If the premises, the systems and peoples attitudes are considered, monitored and guided constantly accidents can be avoided.

For the vehicle operator rigorous vehicle checks, preventative maintenance, driver training and development can stamp out the possibility of any vehicle defects contributing to accidents on the road.  Whilst at the same time driving behaviour can be improved through the effective use of telematics systems and safety cameras.

There is much still to be done to minimise the risk of accidents and injuries in warehouses and on the roads.  We have all the tools to make it a reality and the safety of all should be the cornerstone of any operation.

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