Ensuring workplace safety

16 February 2003

The weight of industrial health and safety legislation is becoming so heavy that it provides a perennial conference subject just to update participants on what's new and how best they can cope with new legislative demands. It can, of course, be a very dry subject but the keynote speech by Ken Woodward at the annual British FIHSC (Footwear Industry Health and Safety Committee) conference in November 2002 showed just how health and safety issues can be brought vividly to life to the benefit of all. Ken Woodward is totally blind as the result of an industrial accident some ten years ago caused by incorrectly mixing two chemicals 15 minutes before the end of his shift - and failing to wear goggles that were provided for him. He might also have lost his life if a defective shower had not been repaired a few days earlier by a conscientious workmate who saw it damaged and decided to get it working again. Without a trace of self-pity, Woodward recounted how the accident happened, his long path to learning to live a full life as a blind person and the anguish and cost the accident caused not only to himself but to his wife and family, his colleagues and workmates and employer. The lessons to be drawn were gently but persistently presented to the audience. No one who sat through the presentation could have left unmoved by the widespread havoc to body, soul and pocket caused by just one second's lapse of concentration. It was a powerful performance. 'Like the majority of accidents, it could have been avoided', said Woodward. 'While everyone including myself contributed to the accident, five specific factors were identified: lack of training to operatives, no lessons learned from an adverse chemical reaction two weeks previously, no positive action by a colleague who watched the drama unfold, no action taken when a pipe in the work area became red hot a couple of weeks previously, and professional advice that the chemical reaction was dangerous arrived too late. Woodward said everyone could have done something to avoid the accident. But the real reason it happened was the prevailing culture. 'Safety is the responsibility of everyone', he said. 'It takes teamwork, trust, care, communication and concentration. Face risks head-on. Create a safety culture throughout the workplace. Never walk past someone breaking a safety procedure. We don't get paid enough to break a safety procedure.' The cost of Woodward's accident was not only the loss of his sight with all the consequential anguish for self, friends and family. One work colleague was so traumatised that he has not worked since and 35 others needed counselling. The accident also cost his employer £2.6 million through fines, lost production and related expenses. The outcome, however, has been that the employer now has a zero accident programme and productivity has gone up by 15% because 'people are working to a safety programme'. That workplace safety can be built into a potentially hazardous environment was exemplified by ICI's paint factory in Cork, Ireland, which has gone 11 years without a lost-time accident. 'It was so', said Woodward, 'because ICI care, continuously improve safety procedures and communicate.' A telling remark made by a 13-year-old school boy who heard Woodward's presentation a few weeks ago was: 'Damage your goggles, not your eyes.'

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