British Sugar – Health & Safety Refined

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In the last few posts we’ve explored the role of corporate governance in health and safety and explored the impact this has on work related stress as well as the abnormalities of higher employee fatality rates compared with contractors.

In the last post we delved into the health and safety related corporate governance of Sainsbury’s. In our experience companies with strong corporate governance policies around health and safety typically get there through one of three routes:

  • They are in a highly regulated industry sector and NEED to be compliant. Banking and Data Centers are two such industries and examples of e-permits users in those sectors include Barclays and DigiPlex (both of whom we have featured previously).
  • They are a forward thinking business with respect to health and safety and WANTS to invest in the safety of all. Sainsbury’s would fit into this category.
  • They have had one or more major incidents meaning they HAVE to drive root and branch reform of their health and safety policies and procedures. This is what happened with the UK company British Sugar.


British Sugar traditionally had an excellent safety record. The company achieved this as it prioritised health and safety and took the issue seriously. This made the tragedies that struck in 2003 all the more perplexing. In that year, three workers died in British Sugar workplace incidents.

These fatalities prompted a review and change of focus by the company.

What British Sugar Learned

Following the three deaths, British Sugar conducted a review of its approach to health and safety. In particular, it wanted to discover why the fatal accidents occurred. The company had, after all, comprehensive health and safety procedures. In addition, it provided training to its employees in those procedures. Why, then, did it experience three fatal accidents in such a short space of time? Why were fatalities occurring at all?

The company found gaps between the training it provided and what actually happened in the day-to-day operation of the company. In other words, employees were not following the procedures every time. [Remember in our previous post on contractors being safer than employees – we concluded that contractors have lower fatality rates because they are forced to follow procedures every time whereas employees are not].

Not only that, the company didn’t know or understand this so it was not doing anything about it. British Sugar concluded that managers had become too busy and, as a result, were not paying enough attention to health and safety.

The company had, therefore, both a behavioural and a structural problem regarding health and safety.

Making Changes – A Director-Led Strategic Approach

The findings of the review led to a change of focus in the company which was driven by the CEO. This change of focus involved making health and safety a director led priority.

The practical measures the company implemented to achieve this included:

  • All board members were assigned a health and safety responsibility by the company’s CEO.
  • The board received monthly reports on health and safety.
  • Working partnerships regarding health and safety issues were established and strengthened with all key stakeholders. This included employees, management, trade unions, and others.
  • Health and safety targets were established along with incentives if the targets were met.
  • The company implemented a behavioural change programme.
  • The company introduced health and safety audits to evaluate performance.

All these initiatives changed British Sugar’s linear approach to health and safety (where the board devised policy but took no further involvement in the issue) to a looped approach. With the new looped approach, the board was directly responsible for health and safety policy implementation and received feedback by way of reports and audits regarding success rates.

Another strategy the company implemented concerned the drafting of health and safety policies or procedures. Traditionally, policies and procedures were drafted by the health and safety team on the instruction of senior executives and then implemented on the ground. This led to managers and employees feeling like they were being dictated to which could, in some situations, lead to resistance.

In the new model, managers became involved in the drafting of health and safety standards, policies, and procedures. Their insight proved invaluable as they had greater knowledge of the realities on the factory floor.

The Results British Sugar Achieved

The change of focus regarding health and safety at British Sugar was a success. The results included:

  • The directors developed a greater knowledge and understanding of the health and safety risks that British Sugar and its employees faced.
  • Minor injury rates and the lost time associated with them were cut by two-thirds.
  • Overall accident rates were cut by 60 percent.

The British Sugar experience shows that even if you have robust health and safety policies in place, your company and employees will still be at an unacceptable level of risk if you don’t have a strategic approach to the issue from the very top. To properly mitigate this risk, you must make health and safety a core component of the company that everyone, including directors, has an involvement in.

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One Comment on “British Sugar – Health & Safety Refined”

  1. Pingback: What an Ingrained Health and Safety Culture Looks Like (Culture Series Part 2 of 6)

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