A safe working environment: what businesses need to know

Ensuring that working conditions for your employees comply with the relevant health and safety legislation is likely to generate significant benefits for your business.

The business benefits of providing a safe working environment for employees are considerable. Not only does this mean companies are less likely to face legal action, whether from health and safety regulators or from workers themselves, it can also have a positive impact on productivity levels and morale.

Stephen Campbell, senior health and safety consultant at NatWest's Mentor service, says that firms which fail to ensure that working conditions for their staff are in line with legislative requirements are likely to suffer in a variety of ways. “This can range from increased accident rates, ill health and absences among the workforce, to higher insurance costs, reputational damage among customers and potential employees. And there is also the threat of enforcement action, including possible fines and even imprisonment,” he explains.

Protecting the environment

From a health and safety perspective, the working environment refers generally to heating, lighting, ventilation and noise, adds Campbell. A mistake he commonly comes across is when businesses think their responsibility for ensuring a safe working environment relates solely to their own premises - whether it is an office, a retail outlet or a factory. 

“Think of other work activities, such as those carried out outside - for example, the arborists, surveyors to estate agents or construction workers,” he says. “This is where measures to provide a safe working environment require a significant amount of planning and control. The safe environment for the arborist needs to consider work being carried out up the tree; for the construction worker it could relate to assembling steel structures, working in confined spaces or digging deep excavations.”

A similar view should be taken by businesses that send engineers out to work on the street, for example, or whose employees are carrying out refurbishment works at a customer's home.

Start at the beginning

The starting point should involve management looking at the type of work they are carrying out and checking that they are complying with any specific legal requirements, Campbell says.

“A lot of it is common sense - for example if someone is carrying out welding, or working where there are fumes from chemicals. The foundation of your approach should be the risk-assessment process.”

All employers are required to carry out a risk assessment - essentially to establish what could go wrong from a health-and-safety point of view and then to develop the requisite policies to address any issues.

Businesses that employ fewer than five people are not obliged by law to keep documentary records of their assessments, but doing so can help employers defend themselves against possible legal action in the future.

Campbell says the risk assessment should consider the likes of where, when and how the work is being done, what lighting and ventilation is available and what temperatures employees are working at.

“It might sound basic but if the air isn't safe - if it is contaminated or flammable, or close to an extraction system - then the employer needs to take urgent action,” he adds.

Checklist

Businesses also need to check the suitability and maintenance of plant and equipment, as well as any requirements relating to hazardous substances.

“If you need guidance - for example if your working environment is somewhat complex, you might need to seek advice from a consultant or other third party,” Campbell explains. “Sometimes firms with complex situations don't always think about or recognise the potential issues. We can help by giving a bit of lateral thought to the processes. For example, regulations around working in confined spaces can be quite prescriptive and we can support employers with the correct interpretation and industry best practice.”

Campbell says that a common failing is in smaller factories or workshops where new processes are introduced. “For example, this could be where a company does mechanical or electrical works on vehicles but they then start to do bodywork repairs, which is inevitably going to require some form of painting to be carried out,” he explains. “So they might set aside a small corner of the workshop to do this. The problem is that you can potentially get a lot of migration of paint fumes into the rest of the workshop and adjacent business units, with implications for the working environment and other members of staff.”

Business should also make every effort to foster the kind of culture where employees are happy to share concerns about any element of health and safety with management, Campbell says. “Often bosses don't know exactly what is going on. They might think they do, but the employees are at the coal face, as it were: they are the ones who are likely to have a greater level of insight into any issues that emerge.

“As such, it is critical to create an open culture of communication and consultation, where staff are not fearful of raising issues with their employer.”

Want to find out more?

I would like to be contacted