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Health and safety is our top priority: Six ways to ensure your approach is more than lip service

March 16, 2022

Paul Clark urges food and drink manufacturers to walk the talk on their health and safety promises.
Risk Management Consulting

In my many years working with organisations in the food and drink sector to manage their risks and defend them against enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), I’ve often heard the phrase: Health and safety is our top priority.

But in some instances, it can take little more than a few seconds to prove this really isn’t the case.

I go into a business and set aside a few minutes for the health and safety manager to tell me what’s in a given policy or statement, one they themselves have signed. Many can’t provide a meaningful answer, so if I was a HSE inspector, their stance on health and safety being their highest priority would have vanished in seconds.

It’s worth remembering the evidential burden is on your business to prove it’s complying with health and safety laws. It’s also worth pausing here to consider the potential consequences of prosecution, which include unlimited fines that can reach into the millions and are uninsurable so must come off the bottom line. This means major fines could see your PLC organisation having to issue a stock market notice.

Also, if the audit trail goes back to your door as a director – let’s say there was an email warning you on the consequences of cutting short a training course – you could also face personal prosecution and could go to prison for up to two years. You might also face a fine based on salary which you’re required to pay yourself, not the business. Finally, you could also be hit with disqualification as director, so will be leaving the business unless it’s willing to create a non-director role for you.

With all this in mind, not to mention the HSE’s 93% strike rate when it comes to successful prosecutions1, here’s six ways your food and drink business can live up to its health and safety priority pledge:

  1. 01

    Widen your view of risk

    Don’t lull yourself into a false sense of security by pointing to written procedures, look at the bigger picture including the senior management structure and individual elements of the business. Consider too how you investigate accidents when they happen to get a fuller, truer picture of health and safety and the weak points in your defence.

  2. 02

    Identify the evidential gaps

When we work with businesses, we’re often pushing for proof of things like training records, acting exactly as HSE would to establish if an organisation’s risk management is good, bad or indifferent. Consider the evidence you could present to demonstrate how seriously your organisation takes health and safety. Ask yourself: where are the gaps and how can we fill them?

  1. 03

    Challenge one-size-fits-all policies

    Too often in food and drink businesses I see policies that are too generic. Take guarding machinery and cleaning and maintenance risk assessments where there might be five or six different pieces of machinery covered by a single document. To truly prioritise health and safety, you need to look at each and every task and activity and assess them all individually and in a site-specific way, as the locations of the same machinery can have implications for how it can be cleaned and maintained safely.

  2. 04

    Prioritise staff training

This is one area where investment in ensuring staff are trained and competent and have read and understood policies can potentially save millions. Take accident investigation, an area we often see food and drink businesses fall down on. An accident investigation form dealt with properly could potentially save significant sums in fines, establishing, for example, where exactly a spillage was and how it was dealt with. Do your staff know what evidence to gather in the minutes after an accident and are the people tasked with undertaking these first steps properly trained to capture it? It could be the most important document your organisation holds, but accident investigation forms are too often entrusted to someone who isn’t properly trained. 

Staff training can be a particular issue when using temporary or agency staff. We know many accidents and incidents occur due to worker inexperience and/or a lack of appropriate training.2 It’s for this reason HSE emphasises that every employee needs to know how to work safely and without risk to health and employers: ‘must provide clear instructions and information and adequate training’ to their workforce3. Providing adequate training, even for staff you don’t expect to be with you for long, is essential for any effective health and safety management system.

  1. 05

    Walk the talk by walking the floor

    Are your staff wearing the PPE they’re required to? Has a machine been damaged but is still operating? If you never head out on the factory floor, you may never know if health and safety is as a high a priority as your policies and procedures promise and the HSE could well take a dim view of your lack of knowledge.

  2. 06

    Make health and safety a corporate governance issue

    How different would your approach to health and safety be, and indeed appear to be, if it was the first agenda item of every board meeting? The most effective health and safety approaches are embedded into corporate governance and the culture surrounding it, driven from the very top or an organisation, whether it’s a PLC or limited company. This needs to be a constant process under continual review and improvement if your business is to go beyond words and better protect your staff and your business.

How can WTW help?

If your food and drink business needs support around health and safety risk and claims defensibility, get in touch.




Head of Innovation and Sustainability, Global Natural Resources

GB Food and Beverage Leader

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