Involving workers in H&S training

Written by Andrea Broughton on 1 June 2013 in Features
Features

Andrea Broughton explains how training employees and managers to work together on H&S issues can change culture

Involving the workforce in health and safety at work is broadly accepted as an effective way of improving H&S. The Health and Safety Executive has been offering training to managers and employee representatives that has successfully changed organisational H&S culture.

This article examines the impact of this training, based on a longitudinal impact study carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies1.

The importance of worker involvement

A positive organisational H&S culture is something that all good employers strive for. One way of achieving this is to involve the workforce in H&S policy planning and implementation. The thinking behind this is that, if managers and employees can work together on H&S strategy and the identification and removal of risk, it will help to develop a culture of joint responsibility for H&S.

The HSE describes worker involvement in H&S as a "two-way process", in which the employer and employees talk to one another, listen to one another's concerns and solve problems together, seek and share views and information, discuss issues in good time, consider what everyone has to say and make decisions together2. There are a range of benefits to this approach, including making the workplace a healthier and safer place overall, and improving employee and organisational performance.

In the light of the benefits of worker involvement in H&S, the HSE has devoted resources to encouraging organisations to engage in this. Most specifically, it has recently sponsored two types of training. The first was a set of courses designed to train workers who had been newly appointed as non-trade union H&S representatives in their organisation. These courses were intended to offer a general overview of the H&S legislation in relation to consultation and worker involvement, and in particular the role and functions of an elected representative of employee safety. They also placed an emphasis on soft skills such as communication, listening and negotiation.

The second was a set of courses offering joint training over one or more days to more experienced employee H&S representatives (both union and non-union) and their managers in organisations in which the H&S culture was already reasonably well developed. Here, the emphasis was on improving the relationship between representatives and managers by working on communication, building trust and understanding and establishing a joint problem-solving approach, within the context of specific issues such as stress management or working at height.

The IES was asked to assess the lasting impact of these courses on worker involvement in organisations. There was a particular emphasis on highlighting any longer-term benefits and embedding of the learning from the training, and how this had made a lasting difference to H&S.

The IES, therefore, undertook a multi-method longitudinal evaluation comprising two waves of a survey of 500 managers of employee representatives attending the course on worker involvement; six interviews with course facilitators; three waves of telephone interviews with 60 employee representatives; three waves of paired telephone interviews with 40 employee representatives and 40 managers attending the joint training, and 12 case studies of organisations that had participated in the training.

Major impact on soft skills

The training for new H&S representatives had a range of immediate concrete impacts on worker involvement in H&S. These include introducing or improving practices and procedures, such as H&S meetings, staff suggestion schemes, better reporting of risks, new or better use of personal protective equipment, and identifying and removing hazards.

However, it was in the area of soft skills that the greatest change was recorded. Both managers and representatives who had attended the training reported that, following the course, they were now more aware of H&S in general, and their overall knowledge of the subject was better.

Many representatives also reported that they were now more confident in their role, could communicate more easily and effectively with managers, colleagues and other representatives, and felt that their influencing and negotiating skills had improved.

There were also reports of more general cultural change within organisations in terms of rapid and appropriate responses to H&S issues.

Some of those who had attended the courses said that they had become better listeners and had a greater understanding of body language, or that they were more conscious of how they communicated and how people talked to them. Others said that they were better at explaining dangers to colleagues, outlining why things needed to be changed, and the consequences of not changing things.

The joint training had focused in particular on encouraging joint working and improving communication and other soft skills, and there was evidence that this had been successful. While some said that the relationship between the managers and representatives who had attended it was already quite good, many said that it had since improved. This seemed to be partly because they had had the opportunity to discuss a range of issues in a neutral and guided environment, but also, in some cases, it was due to the fact that they had simply spent some time together in the same room.

Others reported that there was now a better understanding of the roles of, and demands on, representatives and managers.

Improving communication

Communication was cited by many organisations as being at the heart of joint working on H&S, and many stated that there was always room for improvement when it came to communication. Many delegates therefore reported that there had been improvements in communication following the training.

Other related areas of impact included an increase in trust between managers and representatives, and an increase in knowledge, confidence and awareness on the part of representatives, shown by more willingness to challenge managers or colleagues on H&S issues.

We've all had input into health and safety over the past few months, which has been good. The company has come on in leaps and bounds compared to where it was a few years ago.

It's definitely the number one priority of focus. Health and safety is something that everybody's been made aware of - all the operational staff have been on a health and safety awareness course.

Raising awareness, raising the profile, moving it from being a management tool to something that's everybody's responsibility.

Focus group participant, manufacturing company

Continuing progress

We also looked to see whether the impact of the training was still being felt over the year that followed. After six months, it was clear that worker involvement in H&S had continued to improve in many organisations. Although it was in some cases difficult to assess progress due to factors such as workforce turnover and restructuring, there were certain trends, such as the fact that activities related to systems to involve workers in H&S were taking place more often than had been the case six months previously and that H&S worker involvement systems had become more effective in the previous six months.

Other continuing changes to practices and procedures in the area of H&S were reported, in areas such as risk assessment, meetings, formalisation of communications, extra training, near miss reporting and employee surveys on perceptions of H&S.

Overall, the main trend was towards more formalisation of procedures and processes, such as staff reporting systems, health and safety induction and training courses, inspections and audits, consultation on risk assessments and putting up notice boards.

Soft skills continued to improve - the relationship between managers and representatives was reported to be continuing to improve in many organisations, and there was also evidence of increased engagement and awareness on H&S matters. Some organisations reported that communications systems had continued to improve over the preceding six months, and some interviewees attributed this directly to the training.

There was also some evidence of what interviewees described as cultural change and the development of real joint working on H&S. For some, the training was seen as a catalyst that had started a self-perpetuating process of cultural change. There were also reports that there had been more subtle changes and impacts, such as a change in the atmosphere in meetings, although these were difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, these types of subtle changes play an important role in relation to culture and general atmosphere in an organisation - worker involvement in H&S can be much improved if relationships are more open and key players are more responsive to one another.

There's a very positive attitude and culture towards worker involvement now. The monthly safety and technical group is absolutely valuable and absolutely will continue. The operations director is demonstrating involvement and leading from the front - which helps staff to get on board. There has been a real drive at the top level. It has to be pragmatic but systematic - we expect rigour. It's about filtering it all the way through the organisation. Overall it feels as if we're in a better position and the approach feels more systematic - there is value to having this active role.

Manager, transport company

After 12 months, very few organisations were still putting into place new policies and procedures and overall changes as a direct result of attending the training. Nevertheless, some were continuing to tweak H&S procedures and processes as part of an ongoing commitment to improving the management of H&S. Overall, however, the developments reported centred more on embedding the changes that had been put into place.

One interesting finding was that, after 12 months, some organisations reported that H&S management appeared to have become more informal, compared with six months previously. Typically, an organisation had formalised and regularised H&S meetings and then found that, due to the fact that incidents were being dealt with as they happened, there was little to discuss at them. This could be seen as the final part of the journey, going from informal procedures to formal procedures as organisations begin to concentrate on H&S, and finally to a relaxing of those procedures as it becomes truly embedded.

There were also reports of continuing and lasting improvements in the soft skills of those who had attended the training, including increased confidence, knowledge and awareness of H&S issues. Many interviewees reported ongoing improvements in communications and problem-solving skills. Many also spoke of lasting improvements in the relationships between managers and representatives, and better joint working on H&S.

The biggest change is that people are now talking to each other - I've encouraged them to see themselves as one organisation rather than separate departments. People are much more inclined to notice problems and to challenge other people or practices if they think they are dangerous, and to address any issues immediately.

Employee representative, services organisation

Overall, organisations felt that they were on a journey in terms of worker involvement in H&S, and that improvements were likely to be ongoing in the future. In some cases, there were ongoing issues that had yet to be resolved. This seemed to be the case with relatively difficult issues such as stress.

Remaining barriers and challenges

Despite progress in a range of areas and evidence of culture change around worker involvement in H&S, organisations identified a range of barriers and challenges to improving it, centred on issues such as a lack of time, or resistance on the part of senior management and, particularly, difficulties in gaining buy-in from senior and middle managers. Financial constraints were also mentioned, in terms of there being enough money to cover compliance but no extra resources, and the fact that the economic climate is making it more difficult to focus on H&S.

Organisations reported a range of strategies for overcoming barriers in improving the management of H&S. Communication, trust and transparency were seen as key to most issues.

Conclusions

Specific and targeted training on worker involvement in H&S has had lasting impact on policies and procedures, and changes in the soft skills of employee representatives and managers. This has, in turn, had an impact on the culture of organisations in terms of how they involve workers in H&S, leading to very real and seemingly lasting culture change.

After six months, there was evidence of continuing improvements in the soft skills of employee representatives and managers, largely in the area of their relationship, and an improvement in communication, negotiation, influencing and confidence levels. In some cases, however, given the ever-changing nature of organisational life, it is difficult to attribute these changes solely and directly to the training, as they may also be attributable to factors such as changes in management, a wider programme of change in which organisations were involved, or organisational changes following a period of restructuring.

Following this period of formalisation, after 12 months many organisations subsequently found that there was less need for this formality, due to the fact that processes had become much more embedded in organisational H&S culture. In terms of the future, it is important to emphasise that organisations did feel in many cases that they were on a journey in terms of worker involvement in H&S, and that improvements were likely to be ongoing. Issues such as stress were seen as particularly problematic. Nevertheless, this study shows that, with some initial help such as targeted training, organisations can make a significant and lasting difference to their culture in terms of worker involvement in H&S, in some cases completely transforming how the workforce sees and deals with it.

References

1 Broughton A, Wilson S, Newton B Evaluation of the HSE worker involvement training courses HSE research report 964 (2013)

2 http://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/basics.htm

About the author

Andrea Broughton is principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. She can be contacted via www.employment-studies.co.uk

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