Asbestos and other safety at work – If you own a business, make friends with the HSE

Health and safety gets a bit of a raw deal sometimes. There is a popular image of the officious health and safety person stopping workers doing their jobs for no reason, or the overzealous school issuing safety goggles to kids playing conkers. While there are incidents of people taking their responsibilities a little too far, health and safety rules are usually actually pretty easy to follow. When applied properly and used in the context of the work environment, the guidelines and legislation governing safety will not only keep people from harm, but they can result in improved efficiency.

The statistics on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website make for some really interesting reading. According to a report produced for the year 2014/15:

  • An estimated 27.3 million workdays were lost due to work-related health or injury
  • Over 12,000 enforcement notices were issued in the UK relating to safety issues
  • Over 5000 workers died from work-related lung cancer or mesothelioma due to previous exposure to asbestos
  • The cost to society of ill health from current working conditions alone is an estimated 14.3 billion

As you can see from these numbers, safety at work is not only a moral responsibility but it could also be a serious financial and legal issue for a business.

The responsibility for safety is with everyone involved in the work environment and, for the employer or self-employed tradesperson, this commonly means training and general awareness. While there is a small cost attached to training, it makes no sense to avoid providing it. The bottom line is that trying to save a few pounds on training is avoiding something that could later alert a worker to a potential danger and help them to avoid an injury or long-term ill health issue. Compare the cost of appropriate training to the impact of a missing key team member, or the cost of a hefty fine for not meeting your obligations, and it’s clear that there is no comparison. To put that into perspective, General Motors were fined £120,000 for infringing the rules on asbestos in 2014, and on the other end of the scale a nightclub owner in Bolton is facing a bill for fines and costs of just under £10,000 for using inexperienced and unqualified workers during a refurbishment. While GM may well be able to afford a hefty fine, for a small business owner it could be the end of the road for the company. HSE inspector Matt Greenly summed this up rather well when discussing the nightclub case:

‘…due to the lack of care taken…they (the workers) may face a life shortening disease at some point over the next 30 or more years, from an exposure which was totally preventable. This case sends a clear message to any company that it does not pay to ignore risks on site…’

It is actually very easy to ensure that you keep up with the legal position. If you own a small business, particularly if that means you employ tradespeople, there are some quite basic measures that will ensure you meet standards. The HSE website is an easy and accessible resource filled with the information you need, and it is often even sector-specific. A few clicks or a quick search will usually give you the guidance you require to make sure you are not only ensuring your workers are safe, but that you will not be accidentally exposing your business to legal issues.

The scenario of the health and safety nightmare where everything at work shuts down every five minutes belongs in a ‘70s sitcom. The real world situation is that well trained and informed staff are less likely to take time off work due to illness and injury. Not only that, but you may well have a legal obligation to train them. A few pounds spent on providing fire safety training, Asbestos Awareness and similar courses could result in avoiding a hefty fine, staff health issues, and perhaps even saving the life of an employee.

That seems a pretty good return on investment.