Health and safety policy vs reality: Six tips for creating effective workplace policy

Creating effective health and safety policy is difficult. What happens when policy meets reality? Here are six top tips to help you create better workplace policies.

16 November 2021

Creating health and safety policy

Creating effective health and safety policy is difficult. How does your organisation define its health and safety policy, and what happens when "perfect" policy meets workplace reality?

Picture the scene...

Your new employee turns up for their first day of work. You settle them in at Induction, and take them to meet their manager and team. You give them a stack of paper health and safety policies to read about how to do things correctly. They tick the boxes to say they’ve read them.

A bit later on, you overhear a conversation between the new starter and an existing employee:

“This is how the policy says to do it, but that’s a hassle. This is how we actually do it.”

When setting organisational health and safety policy, it is very easy for organisations to take an off-the-shelf or tick-box approach. After all, the law is law. You must comply with regulations. You can supposedly prevent obvious risks with tried and tested methods.

But that is a lazy way to tackle critical problems. It is likely to leave businesses on the wrong side of the law if things go wrong. Health and safety policy must be both compliant and practical, to be effective. Furthermore, workforce education and buy in are essential for success.

Without this, even the best-written health and safety policy will sit on the shelf gathering dust, and expose businesses to endemic risks from engrained bad-practice.

Here are six tips to create health and safety policy that is works within your business reality.

Perhaps scarily, all the quotes highlighted below are genuine comments made in a public forum about the intersection of policy creation and practical business.

1. Know the law

“There’s the ‘textbook way’ and then there’s the ‘situational way’. Then there’s the ‘How we do it in this location because the supervisor interpreted the standard operating procedure a little differently than intended’ way. As long as it’s safe and legal, does it matter if it’s not textbook?”

Undoubtedly, the first thing any health and safety policy or other procedural document must do is be compliant with laws and regulations. You must meet their defined minimum requirements.

So, read the laws and associated guidelines, and know what standards you have to meet. There’s very little point having a policy in place which doesn’t meet these needs.

But the law is only the framework. The law rarely goes as far as prescribing a set course of action.

For instance, take a look at these short excerpts (yes, really) from the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Section 2 (emphasis added). This contains the core of the employer-employee safety relationship:

Sub-section 2: General duties of employers to their employees

(1) It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of an employer’s duty under the preceding subsection, the matters to which that duty extends include in particular

(a) the provision and maintenance of plant and systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;

(b) arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances;

(c) the provision of such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees;

(d) so far as is reasonably practicable as regards any place of work under the employer’s control, the maintenance of it in a condition that is safe and without risks to health and the provision and maintenance of means of access to and egress from it that are safe and without such risks;

(e) the provision and maintenance of a working environment for his employees that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.

In a nutshell then, under the Act employers must:

  • Provide safe equipment
  • Provide safe machinery
  • Have safe work systems
  • Provide education and training to staff
  • Maintain safe premises
  • Maintain a safe working environment
  • Have wider regard to staff welfare

The employers’ duty is a general one, so this is not an exhaustive list. But it’s a good place to start! Remember too though, that businesses have duties toward non-employees too, under vicarious liability.

The key here then lies in the repeatedly used phrase, “so far as reasonably practicable”. What steps are reasonable for a big multinational corporation are not the same as for a small family business, because of resource implications and so on.

But nonetheless, the bar remains high, and courts will take dim view of employers who have not considered and acted upon their duties seriously.

Legal Acts and regulations can be hard to interpret. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to get help from both qualified legal and safety professionals when turning those laws into actionable policy.

2. Write it down, clearly

“Until we got a safety professional, I – an experience employee – wrote each job procedure along with a trained operator. The professional then rewrote them in tech jargon and lean/kaizen terms no one but the desk jockeys knew. It poisoned the whole thing. The next one tried to educate the workforce, but the damage had been done.”

“It’s worse to work for a company with no policy and procedure manuals at all though. Trying to do anything is a million questions, and having to figure it all out on the go is a hinderance.”

Yes – you must have a health and safety policy. You must also maintain, revise, and communicate that policy regularly.

This is a non-negotiable point, mandated in sub-section 3 of the Act:

(3) … It shall be the duty of every employer to prepare and as often as may be appropriate revise a written statement of his general policy with respect to the health and safety at work of his employees and the organisation and arrangements for the time being in force for carrying out that policy, and to bring the statement and any revision of it to the notice of all of his employees.

Some general points to consider include:

  • Make your policies as clear and straightforward as possible to read and understand. There’s little point having a document that just states impenetrable legal principles, or uses jargon that no-one understands. Use plain English, and keep sentences short and to the point.
  • You should use your policy to clearly identify problems and danger points, and state how they are being addressed.
  • If the policy refers to any supplementary documents, such as operating procedures, make sure they are easily accessible and up to date as well.
  • Say when your policy was written, and when it was last revised. This gives confidence to staff that their safety is a live consideration.
  • Detail who employees should speak to if they need more information (such as a manager, union safety rep, or specified safety professional)

Revisit it regularly

Your health and safety policy will be ignored if it is left to gather dust, and not revisited regularly to make sure it still works. For instance, does the policy refer to departments that no longer exist following a restructure? Does it cover details for old systems or processes you no longer have, and not explain the new?

“We revised everything, but it was all documented. And if something was done wrong, or we made a mistake, you bet we looked it up and retrained on the procedure or revised it again.”

For a lot of businesses, this can be where problems begin. It’s the point where law and regulation meets real-world constraints, and where “reasonably practicable” kicks in. If a policy isn’t practical, it won’t be followed.

You could also be baking in difficulties for a business further down the line.

“This is why ‘working to rule’ is such a devastating union strategy. Following procedures to the letter almost always slows everything down and gives management an extremely hard time, and can’t be punished.”

Policies that are overly onerous can potentially hinder, not enable, business productivity. Health and safety policy creation requires businesses to do what is “reasonably practicable.” Taking a one-size-fits-all or belt-and-braces might not work in reality.

3. Involve others

“The problem is that the person writing the manual has never done the work on the front lines of the job. Imagine what could be achieved if two departments talked to each other to find an agreed upon method? One that worked and was correct to policy.”

Don’t write your health and safety policy in isolation. While it’s incredibly hard to finalise policies ‘by committee’, involving others on the creative journey is most effective.

You must make your policy flexible. If it isn’t flexible, or doesn’t account for real-world circumstances, it won’t be used.

“I’ve yet to work anywhere that the corporate types didn’t have an unrealistic view of what could actually be completed correctly and safely in a reasonable amount of time.”

For unionised workplaces, subsections 4 and 6 of the Act specifically mention the need to consult union reps when creating policy. See that as a help, not a hinderance. They speak for your employees, and should have useful input to make.

But why stop there?

“I tell my managers to get input from the front-line before writing a procedure as they are the best people to tell you what actually happens. From there, we can work together and find better and safer ways to do things.”

Consult widely

Your policy will be more likely to reflect reality if employees are consulted widely in its creation. Smaller businesses may find this easier. Larger businesses may find the suggestion in subsection 7, to create an employee safety committee, easier and more effective. Adopt a two-stage process.

First, involve experienced staff in drafting the policy. They know how your plans will manifest on site or the shop floor. They will be able to say, fundamentally, whether the ideal processes will work or not in the current situation. And from there, you can collaboratively identify whether and how either the policy or the situation (or both) needs to change.

“If the manual isn’t working, a good company will have a process for employee feedback and take appropriate actions to resolve these issues. If not, the company is likely to fail. The best asset for any company is their employees.”

Secondly then, once you have a workable health and safety policy that meets compliance needs, publish it for consultation for the other employees. Seek their feedback. You might unearth a gem of information or – at the least – you are likely to identify potential sticking points and key questions early on. This gives you time to adapt the policy accordingly, and prepare communications which address key issues before launch.

4. Educate about why

“Policies protecting employees are as numerous as the policies that exist to protect companies from legal liability, but employees often don’t properly understand their purpose.”

Communication and education about health and safety policy and procedure is essential. As already mentioned, it’s a legal requirement – but doing it well can tricky.

You should be driven by outcomes. Focus on why things need to be done in particular ways, not what needs to be done. Make sure employees understand the reasons behind particular decisions, not just what the decision is.

“A good manual is written by people who understand the job and how it can be done safely. But that doesn’t stop it being read by people who think they know better and blame the manual when they get it wrong.”

Use practical examples

For instance (simplistically) we know that in construction, falls from height account for a substantial proportion of serious injuries on site. Falls from height clearly need to be prevented. Obvious measures can be taken, such as providing secure harnesses, clipping on, ladder ties, and scaffolding inspections.

For employees, processes can seem obstructive and onerous. Clipping and unclipping harnesses all the time slows down immediate productivity. They don’t stop to consider, at that time, that a serious fall could stop them working entirely. Pinching a few seconds back here and there isn’t worth the risk.

Tying the process to the “why” and to personal impact (avoiding severe, life-changing injuries) makes them more likely to comply, and stay safe.

“There’s always the possibility that you are doing it wrong and don’t know it. The rules are usually there for a reason. If you don’t know then reason then ask, don’t just ignore them.”

Educating employees on roles, responsibilities and reasons will also make them more likely to self-identify gaps in their knowledge. Therefore, they are also more likely to be more self-aware, and to ask for help or clarification when the need it.

5. Everyone learns differently

Simply having a written health and safety policy, and expecting everyone to engage with it, is unrealistic. While some people love reading, others don’t (or can’t).

People learn in different ways – so a good education programme will use a mix of media. Yes, you must have a written policy; but back that up with video guides, toolbox talks, manager briefings, safety signs, and practical sessions.

Communicate your message in different ways. Employees will hear, understand and act upon your message more easily.

Successful delivery to your audience is key. Workforces are becoming increasingly tech savvy, and expect greater digital delivery, straight to mobile devices. Employees in workplaces with limited computer access expect this especially.

This is what Work Wallet's health and safety software does for you. It provides all the essential health and safety tools you need, digitally and all in one place. It’s mobile-first, app-based technology is available on any digital device, in the office or on the go. You have complete flexibility to create, upload and adapt multimedia materials to suit your business’ specific needs.

6. Develop a safety culture

“Be careful. The manual exists to cover the company. They use it to throw you under the bus when things happen. Businesses write procedure manuals for plausible deniability when something goes wrong. Your bosses will judge you by whichever manual is most beneficial to them at that moment, while reserving the right to switch to the other manual retroactively.”

Many companies face deeply engrained employee cynicism about their motivations. However, by working together with employees to create sensible and realistic health and safety policy, you show trust in and the value of their skills and experience. Employees also know the business respects them, and demonstrably wants to keep them safe. It has their welfare at heart.

“More often, the third and more valuable manual is missing – the values. We respect you, our valuable employee, to exercise honest, genuine an honourable discretion in carrying out our mission which meets the needs of all parties.”

Fully informed and knowledgeable employees are more likely to stick to policies and procedures, rather than doing their own thing. This keeps businesses compliant, and reduces risk to themselves and others.

“As soon as the inspectors walked into the building, word quickly and quietly went around, and we would work the ‘proper’ way. Everyone was safe either way we did it.”

Avoid perpetuating mistakes

Malpractice will not become engrained if employees respect your systems and processes. Whenever new starters begin, existing employees show them the ropes. Poor practice perpetuates when it does not reflect policy. One person teaches the next person the same bad habits. Where good policy and practice combine, safe ways of working become the norm, not the exception. Also, employees feel more empowered to ask for help when they need it.

“In my experience, following the manual is slow and safe. If you go by experience, it is fast and easy, but you might potentially die. Because if you learn the wrong thing, you’re going to teach the next person the wrong thing. You suddenly have an entire culture built around unsafe practices.”

Developing a good safety culture it a gradual process, but involving employees in matters that directly affect their work is a great place to start.

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