This is the first in a series of posts arising from research into health and safety in the UK water industry. It’s a high level overview of the issues. Future posts will explore these further and present potential solutions.
The water industry in the UK is well-established so it’s not surprising that most companies in it have well-established health and safety policies, procedures, and systems. People working in the industry still face risks every day, however, plus the industry as a whole has challenges it must overcome.
Many of these challenges are similar to those faced by other parts of the utilities sector as well as the challenges faced by construction companies.
Let’s start with the main risks that employees and others face in the water industry.
Water Industry – Key Health and Safety Risks
As with other industries where employees work remotely, the risks associated with driving on the road are a major concern for water companies. One way they are tackling this is to install tracking devices on their vehicles. They can then use data from the tracking devices to improve driver behaviour behind the wheel.
Working Close to Traffic
Staying with the road theme, many people in the water industry spend a lot of their time working close to traffic. This presents additional risks to the standard risks of being on a work site, i.e. tripping, working with machinery, etc.
Working at Height
For those in the water industry, working at height involves the risk of falling into something instead of the risk of falling off something. Either way, the risk is similar, as are methods and strategies used to mitigate that risk.
Working in Confined Spaces
Many people in the water industry also regularly work in confined spaces including in sewers, pipes, access tunnels, and more.
Chemicals and Toxic Gases
Water companies use a lot of chemicals, almost all of which increase the risks faced by workers.
Exposure to toxic gas is also a risk, including gas from chemicals. In addition, waste water and treatment processes can produce gas that can be dangerous to humans.
Risks to the Public
One of the main risks that water companies deal with in relation to the public is the risk of people accidentally or deliberately going into the water at reservoirs. It’s easy to get into difficulty in these situations, not least because of the way cold water affects the body.
Health and Safety Challenges Faced by the Water Industry
Let’s now look at the wider trends and topics in health and safety that the water industry is currently grappling with.
The below list covers the challenges faced by companies in the water industry. However, there is a wider and arguably more significant challenge to mention – general leadership in the industry.
Specifically, there is much less of a focus on health and safety in the workplace at industry level than there is in other industries in the utilities sector.
Take energy as an example. The Energy Networks Association website has sub-sections on both the electricity and gas parts of its website with detailed information, guidance, and advice on health and safety. In addition, it has an initiative called Powering Improvements which is all about making the energy sector in the UK a world leader in health and safety.
There is nothing comparable in the water industry.
Despite this apparent lack of focus and leadership at an industry level, individual companies place greater emphasis on health and safety issues. Here are the main topics.
Managing Subcontractors and Suppliers
Water companies have large workforces which they employ directly. However, a significant proportion of work that water companies do is carried out by subcontractors and suppliers.
The main problem with this is the health and safety inconsistencies that inevitably exist between water companies and subcontractors and/or suppliers. When these inconsistencies are large, performance levels can suffer.
The water industry’s ageing workforce impacts companies in a range of different ways. This includes the challenge of recruiting the right people and maintaining performance levels when you don’t have a full complement of skills.
There is also a health and safety impact of having an ageing workforce. As this workforce retires, new people will come into the business with fewer skills and less experience. This applies to all areas, including health and safety.
Upgrading Old Assets
Many water companies are also dealing with the issue of old and deteriorating assets. The fact these assets are still in use can sometimes result in health and safety challenges. In addition, upgrading old assets to modernise the infrastructure presents water companies with a whole new set of risks.
Health and Safety Culture
There are many examples of water companies that have strong and progressive health and safety cultures. Having this type of culture is crucial to making workers safer.
However, there are many water companies that adopt an old-fashioned approach to health and safety. In other words, health and safety is a box-ticking exercise that gets in the way of the real business. This must change if the industry as a whole is to move forward.
This means creating and fostering an effective and all-encompassing health and safety culture in the business.
A crucial part of the above is moving from a culture of blame and reprisals to one of cooperation, transparency, honesty, and willingness to learn.
Effective Health and Safety Training
Ensuring everyone in the company gets regular health and safety training is another issue that many water companies are dealing with. It’s not just about doing any sort of training, however. Instead, you need buy-in from the workforce if you want to make a real impact on health and safety performance.
As with many industries and sectors, new technologies are presenting new health and safety challenges. This can be anything from increasing the number of robots in a manufacturing environment to implementing new monitoring systems to the use of autonomous vehicles.
In addition, employees often don’t have a lot of experience using these new technologies. This often exacerbates the risks they face.
Of course, new technologies offer a number of benefits to water companies, including health and safety benefits. You can’t look at those benefits in isolation, however, without also considering and mitigating the challenges.
Again, this is another point that is common to many companies, particularly large businesses and corporations. It’s still important to highlight that without effective health and safety leadership, it is difficult to improve worker protection and health and safety performance.
As mentioned above, many employees working at companies in the water industry work remotely. A lot of health and safety challenges arise out of this, including in relation to training, i.e. are people in location A getting health and safety training to the same level of quality that people in location B get.
The Importance of Improving Health and Safety in the Water Industry
There is a moral duty on all companies, including those in the water industry, to take all steps possible to ensure the safety of their employees. There are good business reasons too, though.
This is because water companies that don’t have a good health and safety culture or effective procedures can be impacted in a range of ways. This includes lower rates of productivity and higher costs. In addition, it can be harder to retain staff, particularly staff who have skills that are in short supply.
When you put all this together, water companies can lose their competitive edge.
Further improvements in health and safety in the water industry can be made. It’s imperative this is done for the industry generally, for the companies that are involved in it, and for the employees working in those companies.