When employee engagement saves lives

Some journalists, who do nothing more dangerous than plug in their laptops, like to poke fun at so-called ‘elf and safety’. Typical targets are schools that won’t let children play conkers or councils that ban bunting because of health and safety regulations. Yet in some business sectors such as construction, engineering or the extraction industries, engaging employees about safety issues can actually save lives.

According to the latest UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, last year 173 people died in work-related accidents in the UK. Although the fatality rate has been steadily falling (20 years ago it was double this figure), we shouldn’t tolerate any level of death in the workplace.

Construction still accounts for more deaths than any other industry (again, see HSE report), last year there were 50 deaths in the UK. This amounts to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 construction workers. To quote the title of Rita Donaghy’s 2009 UK Government report into the underlying causes, ‘One death is too many’.

Reading such statistics always makes me shudder. Nearly thirty years ago as an undergraduate, I spent a summer vacation working on an office block building site in my home city of Manchester. In three months, I never saw a single person wear a safety helmet. The crane operator spent lunchtime in the pub and could barely walk in a straight line let alone drive a tower crane. The scaffolding crew swung around like monkeys in a zoo. One day when we were hauling the roof trusses by rope onto the fourth storey, a builder had me stand on one end of the truss while he calmly walked along the narrow beam over a 60 ft drop to untie the rope. That memory makes me feel queasy even now. While the industry has improved massively since those mad days, it still has a long way to go.

Recently I co-organised a leadership conference at which the health and safety team used a group of actors to land some powerful messages about taking personal responsibility for safety. In the aftermath of a (fictional) accident, the audience engaged with the characters individually. We learned how each had in some way got their priorities wrong, resulting in  bad decisions with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, nothing is so important that we can’t wait until we can find a way to do it safely.  For me, this was an all time top ten employee engagement experience.

So no one should every fall into the trap of thinking that health and safety communication is dull. Instead, employee engagement professionals should see it as the best opportunity you will ever have to do something that could be the difference between life and death. Until we can drive the UK fatal accident rate down to zero – the only tolerable level – there is still much work to be done.