Involving the workforce in health and safety
1 Feb 2013
Andrea Broughton, Principal Research Fellow
Improving occupational health and safety is an important goal for both employers and policymakers and something that has direct benefits for the workforce. One key way of achieving this is to involve employees in the development of good health and safety in their organisation. The thinking behind this is that if the workforce is involved in the planning and implementation of health and safety and works together with managers on this, a culture of joint responsibility for health and safety will develop.
In 2009, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) commissioned IES to carry out an evaluation of two types of training courses it had run to try to improve worker involvement in health and safety. The first were courses for newly appointed non-union health and safety representatives. These courses placed an emphasis on “soft skills” such as communication, listening, and negotiation. The second were courses offering joint training to established employee health and safety representatives and their managers. Here, the emphasis was on improving the relationship between the representatives and managers, by working on building trust and understanding and a joint problem-solving approach.
IES was asked to assess the lasting impact of these courses on worker involvement in organisations. There was a particular emphasis on highlighting any longer-term benefits and embedding of the learning from the training, and how this had made a lasting difference to health and safety. IES therefore undertook a multi-method longitudinal evaluation, comprising: two waves of a survey of 500 managers of employee representatives attending the course on worker involvement; six interviews with course facilitators; three waves of telephone interviews with 60 employee representatives; three waves of paired telephone interviews with 40 employee representatives and 40 managers attending the joint training; and 12 case studies of organisations that had participated in the training.
Our research found that the training for new health and safety representatives had had a range of immediate concrete impacts on worker involvement in health and safety. These included: introducing or improving practices and procedures, such as toolbox talks, health and safety meetings, risk assessments, staff suggestion schemes, better reporting of risks, new or better use of personal protective equipment (PPE), identifying and removing hazards; putting into place new risk assessment procedures and new near-miss reporting procedures; and more regular or more formal health and safety meetings.
In addition, organisations experienced a range of less quantifiable improvements in the soft skills of representatives and managers, such as: increased awareness of health and safety; increased knowledge levels; increased confidence of representatives; better communications; improved influencing and negotiating skills; and more general cultural change within organisations in terms of timely and appropriate responses to health and safety issues.
The joint training had focused on encouraging joint working and improving communication and other soft skills, and there was evidence that this had been successful, and that there had also been changes to health and safety procedures and processes as a result of this joint working. There were also improvements seen in the process of joint working between the managers and the representatives, and organisations now seemed to be more conscious about involving the workforce in health and safety management.
After six months, certain trends were discernable, such as activities related to systems to involve workers in health and safety occurring more often than had been the case six months previously, and health and safety worker involvement systems becoming more effective in the previous six months. Overall, there was evidence of a trend towards more formalisation of procedures and processes, such as staff reporting systems, health and safety induction and training courses, inspections and audits, consultation on risk assessments, and putting up notice boards.
Continuing impacts on soft skills included continuing improvements in the working relationship between managers and representatives, and increased engagement and awareness on health and safety matters across the organisation. In some organisations, it was reported that communications systems had continued to improve, six months after the first interview, and some interviewees attributed this directly to the training.
There was also some evidence of what interviewees described as cultural change and the development of real joint working on health and safety. For some, the training was seen as a catalyst that had started a selfperpetuating process of cultural change.
After 12 months, the developments reported centred on embedding the changes that had been put into place. Impacts included some evidence of the embedding of a strong health and safety culture in organisations, in which the whole workforce was involved and all employees are aware of their health and safety responsibilities. One interesting finding was that some organisations reported that health and safety management appeared to have become more informal, compared with six months previously. They attributed this to the fact that health and safety has become more embedded in the company culture, rather than a separate issue.
There were also reports of continuing and lasting improvements in the soft skills of those who had attended the training, including increased confidence, knowledge and awareness of health and safety issues. Overall, organisations felt that they were on a journey in terms of worker involvement in health and safety, and that improvements were likely to be ongoing in the future. In some cases, there were issues that had yet to be resolved. This seemed to be the case with relatively difficult issues such as stress.
It would seem that specific and targeted training on worker involvement in health and safety has resulted in a wide range of lasting impacts in terms of changes to policies and procedures, and changes in the soft skills of employee representatives. These have, in turn, had an impact on the culture of organisations in terms of how they involve workers in health and safety, leading to very real and seemingly lasting culture change.
After six months, there was evidence of continuing improvements in the soft skills of employee representatives and managers, largely in the area of the relationship between managers and employee representatives, and an improvement in communication, negotiation, influencing and confidence levels. After 12 months, many of the organisations that had formalised procedures found that there was less need for this formality, due to the fact that processes had become much more embedded in organisational health and safety culture. Typically, an organisation had formalised and regularised health and safety meetings, and then found that, due to the fact that incidents were being dealt with as they happened, there was little to discuss at the formal health and safety meetings. This could be seen as the final part of the journey from informal procedures, to formal procedures as organisations begin to concentrate on health and safety, and finally to a relaxing of those procedures as health and safety becomes truly embedded.
For more information on this work, please contact Andrea Broughton at IES.