At the beginning of last month we posed the question, “Are Employees Really Safer than Contractors?” Anecdotally it seemed to be the case and the HSE fatality stats for 2015/16 supported the statement.
On the face of it.
However, digging into the data and removing the agriculture sector yielded a different picture, although an inclusive one due to what appeared to be data anomalies.
There are no such data anomalies in the provisional fatality stats produced last month by the HSE for 2016/17. The headline figures are an overall fatality rate of 0.43 per 100,000 workers across all sectors, comprising a fatality rate of 0.38 per 100,000 employees and 0.70 per 100,000 self-employed. As the HSE points out in the report, “over the past 5 years the fatal injury rate for the self-employed is more than double that for employees”.
That’s easy to rationalize, right? We bring contractors into our facilities, they don’t know the safety procedures we have in place [as well as the employees know those procedures] and, tragically, they suffer a higher incident/fatality rate.
Except they don’t.
When you take the Agriculture sector out of the 2016/17 stats (leaving industries we’re all familiar with/work in) then the fatality rate for employees is 0.36 per 100,000, but is only 0.32 per 100,000 self-employed. That may look close but actually represents a 12.5% increased likelihood that your employee will suffer a fatality. Your contractors are actually safer than your employees!
So why is that?
Since the initial post that kicked off this thought process and analysis in early July, we’ve dug into several different potential cause and effect topics including: Corporate Governance, Work Related Stress, and Heinrich vs Dekker. Each provides good background if you haven’t read them already but the remainder of this post ties them all together in trying to get to ‘why’ contractors are safer than employees.
Let’s start with the 3 pillars of an effective health and safety program.
Corporate governance as it relates to health and safety is all about taking a strategic view and not treating it as an operational issue. This then requires both a management commitment to health and safety as well as building an ingrained culture. A culture has to be established top down, it can’t be created and sustained from the bottom up. Equally, management commitment goes way beyond pushing performance reviews that include a health and safety component. From a corporate governance standpoint, management commitment requires the board of directors as a whole to have a variable element of compensation linked to health and safety performance. Do yours?
Continually improving safety processes (in a company with an ingrained culture of health and safety) requires those processes to be applied across the board with a focus on, and reporting of, all incidents including near misses. After all, only luck separates a near miss from an incident. The earlier post on Heinrich vs Dekker (Zero Harm vs Safety Differently) provides examples of why zero harm and implementing processes to drive incidents to zero is a better approach than focusing only on severe risks and people’s ability to manage risks intuitively. We’ll come back to this.
Workforce participation and attitudes have long been cited as a challenge by health and safety professionals but it’s hard to position their resistance as a root cause for all health and safety ills. They’re much more a symptom of failings in corporate governance and the inability to create an ingrained culture of health and safety. That said, the challenge arising from remote working and a more fluid workforce will require continual improvement in the persuasion, influence and inter-personal skills of the successful health and safety professional.
Work Related Stress
The happy health and safety professional sits at the intersection of the venn diagram – with all 3 components in place and working harmoniously. Stress is an outcome of one or more of the components not working effectively.
If senior management views health and safety purely as an operational issue then accountability will pass directly to the health and safety team and stress will follow due to a lack of real board level support. Accountability without real power.
A lack of efficient and continually improving systems (able to adapt to changing working practices) will produce stress as the burden to plug the leaks falls to you, the health and safety professional. A disenfranchised workforce? More stress.
Why Employees Are More At Risk
Stress is one effect of one or more the pillars not being in place. Might this also provide an explanation for why employees are more at risk than contractors?
In our experience the reason is a failure to apply known, working systems to employees. Systems that are routinely applied to contractors. The employee “knows the ropes”, or maybe resists using proven health and safety practices, and so is given a pass. Perhaps it’s all signed off under the employee’s ability to manage risks intuitively? The outcome is in the stats. Those that should be safest are suffering higher fatality rates than those who should be more at risk, yet who use the health and safety practices and processes set in place to keep everyone safe.
There is a potentially ‘criminal’ side to this practice as well. Imagine a contractor coming in to do some work requiring electrical isolation. The contractor is forced to follow process, gets a permit to work etc. The employee who is assigned to perform the electrical isolation does not have to follow process, does not need to use the permit. What happens when this goes wrong, when your (or the contractor’s) luck runs out?
When you think about it, any failure in workforce participation or continually improving safety processes will be due to a lack of corporate governance. The question now is, how do you get your board on side?
It took a major incident at British Sugar before they took action (see the Corporate Governance post). Sainsbury’s used an external audit to kick-start the implementation of their safety culture. Both have seen impressive results both in terms of reduced incidents and business performance.
It’s been our experience that, unfortunately, taking action only after a major incident (and using the lack of a major incident as justification for inaction) is much more the norm. We’ll continue to communicate around these important issues, but how can we help you? We’d love to hear from you either through comments below or via our Contact page up above.