Managing workplace risks can seem like an overwhelming task. The obligations on employers are onerous and include taking steps to avoid worker inadvertence. Many employers resent the workplace health and safety audit process particularly if, despite their best efforts, a worker is nonetheless injured. When I represented employers, I tried to encourage them to continue to be vigilant by pointing out that they will never know how many injuries their thorough risk assessments avoided.
It is worthwhile considering the common causes of worker injury, complaint and claim for compensation when designing a risk assessment of an employer’s operation. My anecdotal experience is that workers are most likely to make a claim when the following circumstances arise:-
- Toxic workplace culture
- Failure to conduct a risk assessment
- Failure to provide training to workers
- Failure to supervise workers
- Failure to keep proper human resource records.
Toxic Workplace Culture
When workers and employers cannot communicate clearly, injuries are more common and workers are more likely to pursue a claim for compensation. This is particularly the case when it comes to pure psychological/psychiatric injuries. A clear grievance procedure can often nip claims for bullying and harassment in the bud as can thorough training on Anti-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment obligations.
It is also true of physical injuries in that many workers identify potential risks in the workplace that may have been missed by employers. If they feel empowered to identify the problem to the employer early, the injury is less likely to happen. Even if the problem is identified too late and the worker has already been injured, a worker who feels comfortable reporting the injury early will be more likely to seek appropriate medical treatment and have a managed return to work. This improves the prospect that the injury will be contained and the worker will not seek damages at common law.
Failure to Conduct a Risk Assessment
Small businesses in particular tend not to conduct thorough risk assessments or safety audits. It is important to thoroughly consider every aspect of your operation including each task being undertaken by workers. There is a meme circulating through the business community in this time of digital disruption that the most dangerous words in business are “we have always done it that way”. That is also the enemy of a risk assessment. As soon as the business budget permits, it can be useful to engage an independent ergonomist to conduct a safety audit as this can avoid employers falling into the trap of thinking that the system of work is safe because it has always done hat way.
Failing to Provide Training
It is not enough to rely on a workers experience. You do not know if a worker has got into bad habits. Workers may have engaged in unsafe manual handling practices for years without suffering an injury and assumed that those practices were okay. It is incumbent on the employer to ensure that the workers are well versed in how to carry out the work duties safely.
Failure to Supervise Workers
Employers often mistakenly believe that they have discharged their duty to the worker by telling them how to do the job safely. However thorough any workplace safety training is, the employer remains obliged to ensure the worker is conducting the work safely. It is therefore important that the employer supervises the worker to ensure they are actually adhering to the safe procedure in which they have been trained.
Failure to Keep Proper Human Resource Records
Small businesses in particular can find maintaining proper records of their workers difficult. It is nonetheless important that at least basic records are maintained. I have had the situation where there is a dispute between the employer and the worker as to whether the worker was even employed at the time of the injury. It is therefore important to have at least some record of when employment commenced and ended.
Records of training are also important. It is a good practice to keep signed attendance records of workers at training sessions and even better practice is to have the worker complete a questionnaire to show that they understand the salient points of their workplace health and safety training. Details of what training was provided should also be kept.
If you identify a worker engaging in an unsafe practice, the supervisor should keep a note of the discussion where the worker was corrected even if there is no written warning issued.
A first aid register should be kept of any workers seeking first aid for any ailment.
Specific records that would be of assistance for the employer’s industry would also be identified as part of an independent safety audit.
It is important to remember that no steps you take will ever completely eliminate the prospect of a claim being made against the employer. However, businesses who take Workplace Health and Safety seriously will have fewer claims and will suffer less disruption to their operations than those who leave it to chance.