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Carrot, stick – or both? How best to boost health and safety

Gillian Birkby

Which approach proves more effective when it comes to health and safety: incentives or tough love? Fladgate consultant Gillian Birkby assesses the options.

What do a construction site and a cake factory have in common?

On my first holiday job in a local cake factory, I was ‘feeding the ovens’ – putting the cake tins onto the conveyor belt for a huge cooking unit – when an inspector from Marks & Spencer came round with my supervisor and started discussing how there was a lot of dirt under my fingernails.

If they had asked me, I could have explained that I had come straight off the job of scraping out the baking trays to remove the burnt-on cake round the sides. I had not been given time to wash my hands before I was told to feed the ovens. But neither of them thought to ask me; I was just part of the process to be assessed.

These days on construction sites we are a little more sophisticated, with a wide range of gloves available for all kinds of work. There is even a requirement in the CDM Regulations that the principal contractor should consult with the workers – a step up from the cake factory, then.

But how often is there real consultation with the workers? Is there a better way of doing it – and can it make a difference?

Wembley carrot

On the Wembley Stadium project more than a decade ago, the site manager adopted a rather interesting approach.

To encourage the workers to think positively about health and safety, they were asked to provide their ideas on the subject for the site. 

“Lack of control over the working environment is a source of stress, so why not give each worker a chance to be involved in improving their own working conditions?”

Each month the person who had submitted the best idea won some Argos vouchers. At the end of the project the names of everyone who had won vouchers were put into a hat. The person whose name was chosen at random had the free use of a box at Wembley for a year. What a great incentive!

For the Wembley site management this was also a win: they could implement ideas the workers themselves thought would be effective, rather than having to second-guess what the site needed to maintain high health and safety standards.

Do we need the stick too?

On smaller sites this level of reward will not be feasible, but is there something here that could be adapted? Using the carrot of a reward rather than the stick of ‘wear your PPE or you’ll be off the site’?

Both approaches are totally valid of course, and they could be used at the same time.

Parts of a site’s health and safety rules have to be developed to suit each individual project and it is an absolute requirement that workers comply with them. There can be no exceptions to that – and rightly so.

But the workers (and management) could go beyond that and start thinking of other ways of reducing the health and safety risks they can see. Maybe all they need is some incentive to do that.

There could be another benefit: lack of control over the working environment is a source of stress, so why not give each worker a chance to be involved in improving their own working conditions?

Gillian Birkby is a Consultant at Fladgate

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