Mention the word ‘training’ in the average workplace and there’s usually a handful of responses, ranging from eye-rolling and groans of resentment to cries of delight at the prospect of being able to ‘escape’ for a day and do something different from the usual routine.
You’d expect a company that specialises in providing work-related training to champion the cause and, of course, we do. But training – in particular, effective training – plays a significant role that while being generally under-valued, is often only conspicuous by its absence.
Health and safety-related training (including online) is, at times, derided as a sort of ‘necessary evil’, safety measures are often considered barriers that prevent us from getting on with our jobs quickly; a box-ticking exercise that slows down productivity with forms to fill in and demands that specific equipment must be used.
Health and Safety in the UK
This attitude prevails despite the fact that the consequences of not adhering to health and safety measures in particular stretch far beyond mere inconvenience. In fact, a recent report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) delivers the stark news that over the last year, 144 people were killed in the UK in work-related incidents.
That’s 144 families who said goodbye to their loved ones as they headed out to work, expecting they’d come home again at the end of their shift.
Of these fatalities, a quarter were in the construction industry and almost the same percentage of all work-related fatalities – 24% – were caused by a fall from height, which is surprising when you consider that much of the regulation around health and safety training has been brought about with that particular trade in mind and specifically around working at height.
Whilst the number of employees involved in fatal incidents at work over the past 12 months is broadly in line with those of recent years – and follow the same long-term downward trend seen since the early 1980s – most would argue that this is 144 people too many. But we can seek to reduce them.
As a proportion of the working population, the figures tell us that the likelihood of not making it home again after setting off to work is thankfully slim. And it would be unrealistic to think that we could eradicate fatalities in the workplace entirely, but there are certainly steps that can be taken to keep this number down to a minimum, and training can facilitate this in a number of ways.
It is easy to forget that much of the regulation that underpins safety training is borne out of actual incidents and the lessons taken from them to prevent future occurrences. It may therefore seem trivial on the face of it, petty even, to be compelled to don a hard-hat before entering a construction site, for example, or use a particular type of ladder for accessing a roof.
The reality is though that these rules exist because real people have died in real incidents where such preventative measures could have made the difference, literally, between life and death. In addition to the 24% of workers involved in a fatal incident where falling from height was the cause, almost 16% of those who died at work had been struck by a falling object. Training – and good training – should ensure that the reasons behind certain regulations are understood in addition to conveying the good practice to be followed as an incentive for adhering to them.
Here in the UK we consistently have one of the lowest rates of fatal injury in the E.U. according to the HSE (though some regions of the country present a higher number of fatalities than the rest), and whilst this is something to be proud of, much of this is down to our approach to training – and the review of training practices and guidelines.
As the importance of associated training has been increasingly recognised, the culture of safety in the UK has thankfully grown in recent years, with businesses up and down the country adding safety in the workplace to their performance metrics. Further downstream, it is increasingly likely to make its way into individual employee targets alongside the usual measures of productivity and quality, engendering a personal responsibility to collective safety.
Yet there is no room for complacency, as the HSE figures show. Indeed, it is to our credit that we seek to use every opportunity to learn from incidents and apply rigorous scrutiny to understand what went wrong and what could be done to limit the chance of it happening again.
From a business perspective this makes sense. The cold reality is that a fatality at work – quite aside from the sense of loss for an individual on a human level – can have significant consequences on the bottom line: from punitive fines, loss of productivity, revocation of licences or other permissions to trade right through to irreparable brand damage, particularly if members of the public are involved.
High Profile Safety Incidents
In the summer of 2015, the Smiler rollercoaster ride at Alton Towers crashed, leaving four passengers on the ride with life-altering injuries. Merlin Attractions, owners of the Alton Towers theme park, were fined £5m after admitting violating section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and a significant – and presumably costly – PR exercise was required to convince the British public that lessons had been learned, and that they were safe to use the theme park again.
Finding no faults with the operation of the ride itself, the HSE found “the root cause to be a lack of detailed, robust arrangements for making safety-critical decisions. The whole system … was not strong enough to stop a series of errors by staff when working with people on the ride.”
This is significant, as it highlights the need to train our employees not only on how to do their jobs safely under predictable circumstances, but also to provide appropriate training that equips them to make key decisions when events take an unexpected turn.
Again, a scale of impact applies, but in the context of our emergency services, for example, the consequences of failing to do this can be devastating. The ongoing public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster has revealed some uncomfortable truths, from suggestions of cost-cutting in the refurbishment of the tower, completed in 2016, to critical points during the incident itself, in which opportunities were apparently not taken to save more lives.
The inquiry is due to continue and will produce an interim report in the autumn, but it has already become clear that weaknesses in training practice played a role. This led to a failure to ensure that changes to the construction of the tower were adequately considered or even documented, both in terms of seemingly-aesthetic features, such as the now-maligned cladding on the exterior of the building that has been described as being “more flammable than dropping a lighter into a barrel of petrol”, to the actual structure itself, having four more floors than expected and therefore impacting the ability to actually fight the fire once it had taken hold.
The lack of adequate guidelines that made it compulsory to capture certain key pieces of information – and training that would have enabled the identification of such crucial details – seems to be an important factor in leading to the services on the ground being unable to make potentially life-saving decisions. Much has been made of the ‘stay-put’ policy, for example, which meant that residents of the burning tower were advised to remain in their flats and await rescue rather than evacuate to safety.
To those not accustomed to fire safety practice, this might seem absurd. However, it actually makes sense; assuming that a fire is restricted to only one ‘compartment’ – in this case Flat 16 – there should be no need for an evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes in the middle of the night.
It has since been well-documented that the flammable nature of the external cladding, comprising aluminium sheets bonded to a polyethylene core with a highly combustible polyethylene polymer filler, made it nearly impossible to contain the fire to just one compartment, or flat.
Once the flames and hot gases from the fire near the window of the flat had penetrated the (apparently also highly-combustible) internal window frame, it was inevitable that the fire would spread up the façade of the building.
Within twenty minutes of the fire starting, molten material from the cladding was seen to be dripping to the ground below, and just nineteen minutes later (around forty minutes after the initial 999 call was made) the fire had spread from the fourth floor flat right to the top of the twenty-three storey building and quickly made its way round each side of the tower.
Yet it was not until nearly two hours later at 02:47 that the ‘stay-put’ policy was abandoned. Tellingly, 144 people had ignored the advice and evacuated the building by 01:38, but only 36 after the guidance lifted. By this time, sixty-three flats were on fire and 100 people remained in the building, including 30 people who died after moving floors in a bid to escape the fire, rather than fleeing the building.
Much has been made of this potential missed opportunity to abandon the policy, cited as having “substantially failed” within half an hour of firefighters arriving at the tower. The fire officer in charge of the incident has faced some tough questioning at the inquiry hearings, which has made for difficult viewing.
One of the reasons for maintaining the ‘stay-put’ advice was based on the assumption of how fire normally behaves in such buildings. Yet clearly various factors led to this fire being everything other than what a fire-fighter with over fourteen years’ experience would reasonably expect. Despite having received high-rise fire-fighting training, it transpired that no training on an actual high-rise construction had been provided within the London Fire Brigade training programme due to the lack of facilities to actually practise on.
The focus on lesson-learning following an incident should be just that, understanding key points and what could be done in future, rather than apportioning blame. It should be borne in mind that despite decisions that could have been made differently with the benefit of hindsight, the fire service rescued 65 people that night – in spite of the odds that were stacked against them, including exposed gas pipes, a smoke-extraction system that didn’t work, lifts unfit for evacuating vulnerable residents and aiding emergency response and the fact that none of the residents’ doors met current fire resistance standards.
The cumulative effect of all these factors, and more that are certain to come out of the inquiry as it progresses, along with the lack of training to equip emergency personnel to respond effectively to a dynamic and unpredictable incident ultimately led to the deaths of 72 people.
This is not a critique of our emergency services – far from it. It takes a special type of person to dedicate one’s working life to voluntarily enter dangerous, life-threatening situations each day when every instinct must be saying the opposite and everyone else is running the other way to safety. Moreover, no one could fail to be moved by the testimonies given by representatives of the fire service at the inquiry, as they described their horror and at times frustration at not being able to carry out the duty that had made them want to sign up in the first place: to save lives.
Investigations into major incidents are not only about finding out what could have been done differently, but also serve to highlight areas of good practice.
Indeed, the Kerslake Report, which looked into the events following the bomb attack at the Manchester Arena in May 2017, praised the response of the emergency services; from the British Transport Police who were on-scene within seconds of the bomb blast and who stayed to help treat victims despite not knowing the precise nature of the incident, to the North West Ambulance Service who deployed fifty-six ambulances, seven rapid response vehicles, six advanced paramedics and three consultant paramedics to the scene over the course of the evening.
In particular, the decision by the duty officer of the Greater Manchester Police force to stray from protocol and allow emergency responders to treat casualties in the foyer of the arena was singled out for praise by Lord Kerslake. He also acknowledged that a simulation exercise, carried out by Greater Manchester NHS just three weeks before the bombing, for what would happen in the event of a terror attack, played a critical role, noting that the “freshness of memories in relation to this exercise meant that from the strategic and tactical level, things worked well”.
A Look to the Future
It would be unreasonable to expect that each and every element of each and every incident could be predicted, and to suggest so would be foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. No one could have predicted the events that transpired at both Grenfell Tower and the Manchester Arena.
However, it is of course imperative to remember that 72 people died during the fire at Grenfell Tower and 22 people were killed by the bombing in Manchester, and the greatest tribute we can pay to their memory is to ensure that we take all the necessary steps to learn from how we react to such incidents in future.
We must also ensure that those who are expected to make such decisions, whether it be emergency responders who put their lives on the line to protect and save us, or our colleagues or others responsible for safety, are themselves protected and supported to act as best they can. It is vital therefore that this includes adequate training that provides them with the capacity to make those decisions that can make all the difference, literally between life and death.