As a budding health and safety enthusiast, I often find myself asking: “What would I do in that situation?” I have always believed that a good health and safety person is one who challenges without hesitation – they see an unsafe act and they challenge. A competent health and safety practitioner should find this a breeze, particularly in their own workplace, it should be second nature.
But what happens when the familiarity of your own workplace is removed? When the unsafe act you are witnessing is out in the public domain?
Here’s what happened to me when I found myself in this very situation recently…..
“Not to Challenge is to Collude” – 6 words ringing in my ears as I pulled into the car park to pick my daughter up from her gymnastics class. I’d only heard them a few days previous, in my NEBOSH lesson, and already I found myself reciting them out loud to my wife. Naturally, my wife looked at me gone out and wondered what on earth I was going on about - there’s nothing unusual about that, by the way, I’ll often come out with nonsense which no doubt makes no sense to her and get shot that look. This time was different though, it quickly became apparent to her exactly what I was talking about.
Having been at the steelworks all my working life, I’ve become very much accustomed to a high standard of health and safety. It’s drilled into us from day one; we’re constantly reminded through communications, team briefs etc. It’s what we know: it’s our culture.
Safety culture is the attitude, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace. Safety culture is a part of organisational culture, and has been described by the phrase ‘the way we do things around here.’
I guess that’s why when I do occasionally witness things out of work, I am often surprised by the lack of health and safety on show. Surprised, maybe, but not often shocked. Not until recently anyway.
Scaffolding was being erected at the front of the gymnasium where my daughter practices as repairs needed carrying out on the building roof. It was a red hot day and PPE was very scarce. That’s between the employees and their employer. That, I wasn’t going to concern myself about.
Being a NEBOSH student I sat and watched them intently for a minute or so because nothing I was witnessing filled me with a lot of confidence and I guess I was using them as a case study for my own revision! At this point the only thing they were guilty of was not having the same standards as we demand from contractors on our site but that isn’t a crime, as I’ve already said, that is just down to differing cultures. However, I could see one of the scaffolders just about to do something that certainly was concerning me and I wasn’t about to let it happen.
One of them thought it was okay to throw connector tubes from ground level up to his mate on the roof and he was stood directly in front of the door to the gym where kids were about to come out! I think I even surprised myself at how quickly I was up and out of my car – I immediately asked him to stop what he was doing. He shot me that ’who on earth are you’ look but, before he could even consider a confrontation, I got on top of the situation by telling him kids were about to come out of the door and I suggested what he was doing was unsafe and asked him to stop immediately which, in fairness, he did.
He said if he'd known kids were coming out he wouldn't have done it in that location. I suggested he shouldn't be doing it like that anyway and should also be aware of all access and egress points around where they’re working. He was certainly an experienced gentlemen and I got the impression he wasn’t best impressed with someone like me approaching him but, as I say, he did stop and that was my main concern.
As a member of the public I couldn't do much more, but I certainly felt better afterwards for doing what I saw as my duty.
It's important to challenge unsafe behaviour. I know some find it intimidating and I can appreciate that, especially out in public, but I’d always ask myself this question – if I choose to look the other way, what could the alternative be? Imagine if that was a member of your family at risk and someone else chose to look the other way…
This whole episode emphasised once again why I am proud to work for British Steel. I am proud of our people and the safety culture we’re working hard to develop. I'm confident in my own and my colleagues’ ability to do all we can to keep ourselves and those who may be affected by our acts and omissions safe.