The big dirty health and safety paperwork secret

Veritas Consulting

Checklists, reports and documents are swamping construction sites – but they aren’t making your employees any safer.

Over the years, health and safety provisions have become synonymous with bureaucracy. Ask any construction site manager or foreman and they’ll tell you – health and safety is nothing but paperwork and form-filling.

Clearly this is a problem – first, it helps to create a negative attitude towards the very important role of health and safety. Second, it is fundamentally wrong – workplace safety has (almost) nothing to do with paperwork at all.

So what went wrong? How did the construction industry become obsessed with paperwork?

Building ironclad risk assessments

Workplace risk assessments are a feature of the management of health and safety at work regulations 1999. Every activity that takes place at work is supposed to have an accompanying form that outlines potential risks and how they can be mitigated.

A completed risk assessment shows that your business is not only taking health and safety seriously but also shows that you are taking steps to protect your workers. And obviously, this is a good thing.

But a risk assessment is supposed to consider, and mitigate, only those situations that present a genuine risk to workers or the public.

Take the case of the Tarporley council ban on hanging baskets for instance.

There is always a risk of hanging baskets falling and striking a passer-by, but the likelihood is small for a well-secured planter. After conducting a health and safety risk assessment, authorities decided it was safer to implement a blanket ban on hanging baskets – rather than suggest that each basket was secured by a secondary safety chain.

These safety measures are both simple and effective – for a highly unlikely event. An outright ban is on hanging baskets is disproportionate, an example of “elf n’ safety gone mad” because the workplace risk assessment has gone well beyond the limits expected by the Health and Safety Executive.

Computerisation creates bureaucracy

As the construction industry has become increasingly digitised, almost every process has become digitised – including health and safety. Although computerisation gives the impression of greater efficiency and control, the reality is that we have seen an increase in the number of forms, reports and health and safety checklists that need to be completed before work commences.

This increase in bureaucracy creates a false sense of security. Many assume that as long as all the relevant forms and checklists have been completed, their workers will be safe.

But too much time-consuming paperwork may create two problems; first, line managers rush the forms without carrying out the necessary checks. Second, the time spent completing checklists takes resources away from actually showing workers how to complete a task safely.

The big dirty paperwork secret

What most firms don’t realise is that the HSE has very little interest in paperwork. Inspectors visiting your site will speak to employees and watch them at work. Indeed observation is at the heart of any construction site visit.

By watching employees as they work, experienced inspectors can quickly see whether they are adhering to best practices. It will quickly become apparent if there is a culture of risk-taking and shortcuts for instance.

Inspectors may ask to see evidence of risk assessments after

failings are identified. When this happens, the inspectors are looking for evidence that the necessary checks and training have not been completed. Paperwork is not the HSE’s priority.

No better than an MOT certificate

In reality, checklists and workplace risk assessments are no more indicative of site safety than an MOT certificate proves your car’s roadworthiness. When a pass certificate is generated, it simply means that your car met the required Ministry of Transport requirements at the time of testing.

On the journey home your tyres could wear below the legal limits, or the exhaust develops a hole. In the space of a matter of minutes, your car has gone from roadworthy to illegal – even though you hold a certificate to show everything was fine.

The same principle is true of the forms and reports generated by many popular health and safety computer software packages. These checklists are incredibly detailed and seem to cover every potential risk – but they are completely useless if people ignore them.

You have a large collection of (digital) paperwork that proves nothing except that a risk assessment process took place at some point in the past.

Actions speak louder than words

If HSE inspectors want to see employees working safely on site, your priority has to be the creation of a culture focused on maintaining standards. Investing in training, engaging with workers and awareness will be much more valuable than a computerised checklist system in the long term.

Keeping basic risk assessment records is essential – but they are not your primary defence during an investigation. Rather than adding to your bureaucracy and generating tonnes of paperwork, you must train staff to develop an instinctive bias towards working safely.

A reminder that paperwork does not keep people safe. People do.

To learn more about building effective workplace risk assessments and how to create a safety-first culture for your business, please get in touch with Veritas Consulting.

David Cant 
Director, Chartered Safety Practitioner
Veritas Consulting