Special Report on National Training Awards: A cure for the headache of safety at work: Changing people's perceptions is the hardest part, writes Lynne Curry

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The Independent Online
CHEMICALS that can burn skin, corrode tissue, cause cancer, affect breathing or bring on rashes are everyday facts of life to the 600 workers at the site of Britain's only paracetamol production plant.

But although the 4,600 tonnes of this pain-reliever are used throughout the world, the safety aspects of running a business based on highly toxic chemicals can give distinct headaches to those in charge.

Sterling Organics, supplier of bulk pharmaceutical chemicals to its parent company, Sterling Winthrop, also exports pounds 30m worth of chemicals for pharmacy, photography and agriculture from its multi-purpose 24-year-old plant at Dudley, nine miles north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Dudley is a purpose-built plant with three units - one exclusively devoted to paracetamol - and a pounds 1m improvement programme which will take place over the next four or five years.

Dr Bill Riddell, director of safety and environmental affairs, and David Harrison, the plant occupational hygiene manager, have already spent two years on a three-level initiative which has reduced the number of injuries and days lost through sickness.

But the hardest task they faced was not in bringing about better plant design from the engineers and obtaining the capital investment from the directors, which were stages one and two in the programme, but in persuading the workforce to look after itself.

'Winning round hearts and minds was one of the major parts of the programme,' Dr Riddell says. 'There is a natural resistance to change and the introduction of new processes and new systems. People think they've done it a certain way for years and years and years, and can't see why they need to do it differently now.

'If people are handling dangerous chemicals day in day out without harm, they tend to become blase about it. It's human nature to think to yourself that the material in the drum isn't toxic at all.'

This is the fourth consecutive year that Sterling Organics has won a National Training Award, this year also taking the special award sponsored for the first time by the Health and Safety Commission.

Three thousand working hours have been taken up in training, many of them in classroom-style teaching, about the risks of the chemicals and why the plant and procedures are being changed. Every employee, including the managing director, has been involved and the number of accidents has halved.

Accidents at work continue to trouble the Health and Safety Commission, which reported 466 deaths and 28,961 injuries in its annual report last December.

Sir John Cullen, chairman of the commission, said that overall totals showed only minor improvement in what seemed to be 'an irreducible mass' of accidents commonly caused by slipping, straining and falling.

'We believe that this argues for a new approach, based on securing improvements to the detail of what is done through the assessment of risk, safety management and safety training.'

John Holland, an official of the Health and Safety Executive, says health and safety training should not be regarded as a burden on industry. 'In many cases it can bring dividends, not only in terms of human suffering but in financial terms and in morale.'

More than two-thirds of all accidents at work are considered avoidable. Higher insurance premiums, damaged machinery and lost time are among the drawbacks - in some cases, according to Mr Holland, the loss of a key member of staff could bring a company to its knees.

(Photograph omitted)