Planning to avert a tragedy

Many businesses are failing to do enough to prevent accidents. Sharon Wallach reports on a club that puts safety first `Compliance is not just a question of an Elastoplast checklist' `This is an area in which there are not that many experts'
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Prevention is the key to the health and safety initiative pioneered by the solicitor Richard Bretton.

The Health and Safety Club aims to help businesses to avert workplace accidents by alerting them to new regulations, offering immediate legal advice in emergencies, and, most importantly, assisting them to put into place solid, workable health and safety policies.

More and more legislation appears each year. Since 1990, more than 50 sets of health and safety regulations have been put in place. And the level of compliance in most business sectors is low.

The club, says Mr Bretton, a partner with the Bristol firm Osborne Clarke, is "the first response by the legal profession to the Health and Safety Executive's call for a partnership between the law enforcers and the business community."

The traditional role of the personal injury lawyer is reactive. The defendant - in occupational injury cases, the employer - is advised by solicitors retained by his insurers, with little liaison between these lawyers and the managers responsible for health and safety within the company. This approach is flawed because it does not allow for the process of review after an accident.

"The investigation of the direct and indirect causes of accidents is an essential and important reactive strategy in safety management," according to the club's prospectus. "Traditionally, the lawyers retained by an insurance company have not advised the employer of the lessons to be learnt from the event that has caused injury or even death."

The club's approach, on the other hand, relies on prevention rather than cure. It aims to make employers more aware of their obligations, but also to help them to find an appropriate solution.

"Health and safety permeates every part of a business, from a drinks vending machine to staff training," says Mr Bretton. "Take the first-aid regulations, for example. The current requirement to have a first-aid box is going to be amended to demand sufficient first-aid facilities for a particular business."

This means assessing risks; and risk assessment, says Mr Bretton, is the way the health and safety rules are going. "The law is becoming less prescriptive, but it will be difficult for an organisation to know if it is complying. It is not just a question of an Elastoplast checklist."

So the role for lawyers in co-ordinating the work of other professionals, such as occupational welfare consultants and medical practitioners, is to guide businesses to the process by which they themselves can find the right solution. In part, this can be done by reference to how others are doing it.

"One of my clients is a building society, which I am helping with its policy on upper-limb disorders. Because I have done this for others, the client is not starting with a blank sheet. What I do is get the client thinking in the right direction to develop a policy. This is how the HSE expects companies to act - and not by acquiring off-the-shelf packages. Documentation has never saved lives, and my experience as a litigator tells me that if people don't understand the reasons for documentation and policies, they don't work."

Health and safety issues are not just relevant to industry's dark satanic mills, as many people may believe. They are applicable to any working environment, Mr Bretton points out.

"This office has a health and safety policy," he says. "Someone could get electrocuted by the photocopier or trip over a telephone lead - lots of things are capable of injuring someone, and eventually they will."

Ninety per cent of a health and safety policy is common sense, Mr Bretton says. "We want to encourage people to plan and thus avoid a tragedy way down the track. Accidents are so often preventable."

This kind of planning can also save businesses money. The 1.6 million occupational accidents that occur each year cost companies £4bn. Insurance is not the answer: average uninsured costs are greater than the cost of insurance premiums paid.

The insurers are in the best position to ensure compliance with health and safety regulations, Mr Bretton suggests. Many companies don't know that if they comply they can often make an immediate saving on premiums, by as much as a factor of ten.

They will also see other benefits accruing from good health and safety policies: improved staff morale and performance, for instance, and a reduction in staff turnover and absenteeism.

"Health and safety is not only about not injuring people, it is also about improving performance," Mr Bretton says. Some 30 million working days are lost each year from occupational accidents. The cost to society is estimated to be about 5 per cent of total gross trading profits.

"We have rung a chord with commercial clients because what we are doing ties in with total quality and other management systems. Health and safety plays a part in quality, and is just as important as the quality of the company's product."

The club's facilities include a 24-hour advice line (for which a charge is levied, though club membership is free). It offers workshops for the exchange of information, regular notes and advice about new regulations and other developments, and access to a comprehensive health and safety library.

Since its launch last October, the club has recruited more than 40 members, including commercial clients of Osborne Clarke. "It gets me in closer contact with both clients and prospective clients," Mr Bretton says. "If it continues to be successful, businesses will become more aware of health and safety needs, they will recognise the reasons they need to comply and the benefits of compliance - and it may bring me work.

"This is an area in which there are not that many experts. We see ourselves as a market leader and we feel we can legitimately approach the clients of our competitors. We are offering something innovative and fresh, and we are more than happy to blow our own trumpet."

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