Health and Safety Assurance – a response

A follow up to a recent article by Greg Smith – essential reading for managers, supervisors and safety people!!

Health and safety assurance – a response


I was recently in a conversation on LinkedIn which stemmed from a post I put up, asking about “assurance” in health and safety.

Some of the comments included:

Step 2 – “History is clear. None of this information “proves the effectiveness” of safety management”

“For example, number of site inspections done”

Greg – This is ‘a’ measure of safety

You ask “Does the information “prove” the “thing” you are concerned about is managed in accordance with the requirements of your safety management system’

Can you see that a inspection of a particular area or object is about ensuring it is managed in accordance with the requirements of your safety management system’.

Can you see your contradiction?


Greg Smith – you ask/tell

” If you have a workplace accident you need to prove:

There was a “proper” system to manage the hazard(s) that gave rise to the accident; and There was “adequate” supervision to ensure you implemented the “proper system” and it was effective to manage the hazard(s).

Now considering you seem to think KPIs and audit and inspection cannot prove a “proper” system to manage the hazard(s) is working…can you tell us what we can use to prove such a topic?

Same with “adequate” supervision’…would not a lagging and leading indicator of the amount of visits and notes on what was talked about and what needs to be talked about be seen as a valid form of evidence???

These are all legitimate questions, but when they were published I was just about to start moving house. Having gotten into our new home, I thought I would try and expand on some of the concepts from the original post.

The observations I am trying to make are, hopefully, not complicated.

What I see is organisations doing a lot of “stuff” in the name of health and safety. They do audits, investigations, management inspections, complete checklists, review JHA’s, sign off permits etc., etc. they do all of these things.

But when you review major accident enquiries, or you read the transcript from prosecutions, or when your job is to defend companies who are charged with breaching safety and health legislation, what you find is all of the activity cannot be aggregated to show the company was managing the hazards.

There is never any evidence, or conversation, or commentary in the cases where the company is able to stand up and say:

here is all of the activity we have been doing around health and safety, and this is what it tells us about how well we were managing the hazard and how well we manage safety in our organisation

Let me give you an example based on working at height.

If you have a working at height incident – someone has fallen and died – we want to try and establish that you had a “proper” system to manage the risk of working at height and “adequate” supervision to know if the system was implemented and effective.

To understand if you have proper system, we look, for the most part, at your documented processes.

Were your standards, policies, procedures etc. consistent with industry practice, legislation, codes of practice, guidance material and so on? This is reasonably straightforward and in many cases those processes exist and are consistent with legal and industry expectations.

We then need to understand if the “proper” system was implemented and effective.

First, we want to understand this from an “incident specific” perspective. This means understanding whether the system was properly implemented at the time of the incident.

Were the people involved in the work properly trained to do the work? Was the relevant paperwork (JHA, take 5, any permits etc.) completed correctly? Was the work being done in accordance with any safe working procedures, safe work method statements or other process documents?

We will talk to any workers who were involved in the work. We will ask them about how they performed the work, what they understood about any hazards involved in the work, what they knew about the safety procedures,  and we will compare those conversations.

We will compare those conversations between workers. In other words, do all the workers have the same understanding about the hazards and how the work was meant to be done?

We will also compare those conversations with the processes. Was what the workers explained to us about the work, and the hazards, and how the work was going to be performed consistent with the JHA, the permit, the safe work method statement, the safe work procedure, or any other documented processes?

Unsurprisingly, after an incident, there are usually gaps. Most often, the paperwork is terrible.

However, problems in relation to the specific incident are not the end of the story.

Courts and Tribunals accept accidents happen. The law says it is not the job of the employer to ensure accidents never happen. That is why the test is one of “practicable“.

So, in the event of an incident where there are gaps in the way safety was managed on the specific incident, we want to try and establish the incident was a “one-off departure” from an otherwise effective safety management system. In other words we want to be able to prove to a Court or Tribunal that working at height was a hazard understood in our business and it was usually managed well and in accordance with our health and safety processes.

This is where the assurance problem begins.

In my experience, in almost every case I have ever been involved in, the company can point to all of the things it has done in the name of health and safety, all of the activities that I have already described in this article, but cannot point to anywhere where those activities have been aggregated together to tell a story about how well health and safety is managed. Moreover, they cannot point to anything where the relevant activity has been aggregated to tell a story about how well the specific hazard was managed – in this case working at height.

This means we have to try and build a picture about how well the hazard was managed based on the activity. This involves looking at previous incident reports, audits, work packs or documented information from other working at height activities, including permits, JHA’s and so on. It involves having conversations with other workers about working at height and how the hazard was managed, how they normally performed the work and what they understood about the hazard.

Typically, what we see is unhelpful.

The paperwork is completed poorly, incident investigations show repeat failings which have not been addressed, audits only look very superficially at a “documentation” level of the business and do not critically examine the way work is performed, checklist and inspection documents are “tick and flick” forms, and even where there is space for people to add comments, there are no comments and no real evidence about the effectiveness of the process.

Very often, the conversations with workers simply reinforce the failings and demonstrate the way people were performing work when the incident occurred was the way work was typically performed.

Rather than demonstrate the incident was a “one-off departure” from an effective system, the evidence reveals the incident was part of ongoing “systemic failure” of safety management and institutionalised non-compliance with the processes.

The upshot of all of this is, in my experience, health and safety “assurance” consists of a range of bureaucratic activities which do not give any worthwhile insight into whether hazards in the business are being managed.

As I tried to point out in my earlier post, this is a simple theory to test in your own business. Just pick a hazard and go and see what all the activity done in the name of health and safety tells you  about whether these is a “proper” system to manage the hazard and “adequate”  supervision to know if the system is implemented or effective.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below