Watch your step

United Kingdom

"Health and Safety is integral to success. Board members who do not show leadership in this area are failing in their duty as directors, and their moral duty, and are damaging their organisation."

A quotation from Leading Health & Safety at Work - guidelines written 'by directors, for directors', launched in October 2007 by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the Institute of Directors (IoD). Although the guidance was issued to all 52,000 IoD members, recent findings have shown that relatively few directors have actually utilised the guidelines, and indeed the lowest readership was found to be among those in the hotel and catering industry.

The guidelines attempt to draw to the attention of directors the importance of good health and safety practices and procedures in the workplace. The short (eight-page) publication provides a summary of legal liabilities, a checklist of key questions for leaders and a list of resources and references for implementing the guidance in practice. It takes a commonsense approach, offering straightforward practical advice in relation to health and safety.

On 22 December 2008, the HSE issued a press release urging business leaders to take advantage of the guidance, as research conducted by Databuild on behalf of the HSE indicated that only a quarter of business leaders surveyed knew about the publication.

In March this year, Databuild published its full report, which detailed the specific results of the survey. The findings indicated that of the 25% of organisations who were aware of the guidance, only 13% had actually read it, and awareness of the guidance was found to be lowest among hotels and catering organisations. While 54% of directors were aware of the guidance in the NHS sector, this figure was just 19% in hotels and catering.

There was also found to be a great degree of variation between sectors when considering whether the guidance was actually put to use - only 7% of those in hotels and catering had taken steps to use the guidance. A correlation was also shown between awareness of the guidance and awareness of recent health and safety legislation - awareness of the guidance was more than two times higher among those who were also aware of recent legislation. Yet once again, awareness of legislation was lowest in the hotels and catering sector.

The majority of those surveyed had positive views about the guidance, and nearly half of those who had read the guidance had subsequently taken action. A large proportion felt the guidance had improved their understanding of their responsibilities for health and safety in the organisation.

Health & safety in hotels and restaurants

Employers are legally obliged to ensure employees and anyone else who could be affected by their work are kept safe from harm. In a hotel or restaurant this would include not only employees of the company, but also members of the public and cleaning and maintenance personnel, to name just a few. Various characteristics of the hotel and catering sector could have a negative impact on health and safety, including heavy workload, prolonged standing and static posture, long working hours (often in the evening and weekends, resulting in disruption to employee work-life balance) and high stress levels.

HSE statistics show there has been an increase in the rate of both major and over-three-day reported injuries in hotels and restaurants. In 2007/2008, reported major injuries increased from 1,076 to 1,180, while over- three-day injuries increased from 4,088 to 4,128.

Along with manual handling, slips and trips are the most common causes of major injury in the hotel and catering sector. In 2007/2008, slips and trips accounted tor 35% of reported injuries in hotels and restaurants. A high percentage of reported injuries to workers in hotels and restaurants are also caused by contact with harmful substances - this figure is 11% in hotels and restaurants, compared with an average of just 2% in other industries. In addition, more reported injuries are caused by electrical incidents and exposure to fire in hotels and restaurants than in all other industries.

It is essential that employers in the hotel and catering industry do all they can to reduce the risk of health and safety incidents in the workplace. Specific risks and hazards should be identified and assessed and plans should be put in place to eliminate or reduce the specific risks to the lowest practicable level. In many cases, accidents can be prevented through effective supervision, good management and training.

[The good news is that, in recent years, the rate of self-reported ill health has been lower in hotels and restaurants than in all other industries. Likewise, the number of days lost due to workplace injury and work-related ill health is significantly lower in hotels and restaurants than other industries. The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008.]

When considering health and safety duties incumbent on directors, it is imperative to highlight the increased penalties brought about by the Health & Safety (Offences) Act 2008. This Act came into force on 16 January 2009, and health and safety incidents after this date will now result in much more significant penalties than those previously available to the courts.

The new Act makes three main changes: it raises the maximum financial penalties available to the courts to £20,000 for most offences; it makes imprisonment an option for a wider range of health and safety offences; and it makes certain offences currently only triable in the lower courts, triable in either the lower or the higher courts (meaning more cases will be open to an unlimited fine and a term of imprisonment). The Act extends to both England & Wales and Scotland. Although it increases penalties for health and safety breaches, it does not impose any new obligations on employers and the duties of employers will remain as before under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and its associated regulations.

Since the new Act makes imprisonment a reality for directors and individuals in management following a breach of health and safety law, companies (in particular directors) should ensure they are well prepared by doing all they can to comply with existing health and safety legislation. Policies, procedures and practices should be evaluated to make sure they are in compliance with the law, and appropriate measures and precautions should be put in place. It may, in fact, be appropriate to arrange for a legal audit of procedures, to mitigate against the more stringent penalties now available in the event of a breach.

The guidelines are available here.
To view the Databuild report, click here.