Top 10 health & safety mistakes

We've consulted with health & safety experts and reviewed real-life scenarios to compile a shortlist of the most common safety mistakes organisations make. 

  • Failure to identify hazards
  • Missing near-misses
  • Neglecting maintenance
  • Rushing training
  • Failing to cover-up
  • Having the wrong tool for the job
  • Forgetting not everyone speaks English
  • Offering rates-focused rewards
  • Not setting a good example
  • Being complacent 

#1 Failure to identify hazards 

Unless you know about a risk, you can't control it. Too many organisations fail to implement a system for identifying workplace hazards, which means that risks go unnoticed - and are literally accidents waiting to happen. 

There are many examples of this in the context of industrial machines being left unguarded, resulting in injury to operators and fines to employers. 

One of the most effective tactics for identifying potential hazards is dividing the workplace into zones and auditing them regularly by conducting safety walks.

#2 Missing near-misses

A near-miss can feel like a relief; it is easy to move on and forget what happened once the threat has passed. However, failing to deal with a near-miss is a significant risk factor, as there is an increased chance the issue will come up again.

Employees might not report near-misses because they are seen as embarrassing or funny or perhaps, they just can't be bothered with the paperwork. The HSE (Health & Safety Executive) suggests that there are around 90 near-misses for every accident at work.

Make it everyone's responsibility to report near-misses. Work collaboratively with the workforce to create a procedure for reporting near-misses. Make the system easy to use and encourage verbal reporting too. Praise whoever submits a near-miss report and act on this close call. At the end of each week, month or quarter, review the near misses that have occurred to highlight patterns and determine actions that need to be undertaken to strengthen weak areas. 

#3 Neglecting maintenance

Many health & safety incidents arise due to employees having to work with out of date, inadequate or damaged equipment. It is understandable that companies want to delay the replacement of old machinery for as long as possible, but this strategy must be accompanied by regular servicing and maintenance. 

It's not just old equipment; new equipment can pose a risk if it isn't inspected and maintained often enough. It is easy to put off scheduled maintenance because there are more pressing tasks that require attention. However, a delay will only increase the chances of a safety incident resulting from an entirely preventable failure or fault. 

A real-life example of this was a construction firm that was fined in 2018 after a site dumper injured an employee. An investigation by the HSE found the company had failed to regularly inspect and maintain the dumper's handbrake.

#4 Rushing training 

When new staff join, there is usually pressure to get them up to speed very quickly. But rushing through training and inundating new starters with verbal or written information that they are expected to remember and apply isn't going to be effective. 'Telling' isn't training, and learning works best when it incorporates hands-on practical training. 

This is particularly true when the job involves operating machinery, as illustrated via a recent case involving a worker whose hand was injured in a piece of metalworking machinery. An investigation by the HSE found that the employee had been undertaking a trial period, but the company had failed to provide him with adequate training.

#5 Failing to cover-up

PPE such as hard hats, goggles, gloves and boots play a vital role in managing health & safety risks. However, HSE figures show there are around 9,000 PPE related incidents each year.

The failure to use provided protective clothing usually comes down to poor management, communication, and training. If workers don't understand why PPE is necessary and have no say in choosing it, they are likely not to use it. 

Communication, consultation, and training are often enough to ensure compliance. If workers complain PPE 'gets in the way', this can usually be overcome by selecting well-fitting equipment and involving workers in the selection process. 

#6 Having the wrong tool for the job

A screwdriver is not a chisel or pry bar. Nor is a ladder an acceptable substitute for scaffolding. Many health and safety incidents occur due to equipment being used in a way that it was never designed for. When using tools in an unintended way, safeguards are likely to be rendered ineffective, increasing the risk of injury.

It might be that the right equipment is not available or that the worker can't be bothered to go and find the right tool. However, using what is to hand rather than the right tool is a cause of many injuries. 

Even if it is more expensive, the tool specific to the task is the only one that should be used. In the long run, this choice will optimise productivity and improve safety. It is also essential to ensure that tools are kept in good condition and readily accessible.

#7 Forgetting not everyone speaks English

Safety is non-negotiable, regardless of language barriers. If you have workers whose first language is not English, you must put in the time, effort, training and additional investment necessary to ensure their safety. 

It is not just about taking into account language differences but also cultural differences. People from other countries might be used to very different health & safety attitudes. They may forego proper PPE or fail to report injuries because they are not used to this approach or are worried about losing their job. 

Employers are responsible for understanding cultural differences and making all workers comfortable reporting near-misses and unsafe conditions.

#8 Offering rates-focused rewards

In an effort to improve their safety records, some companies offer misguided incentives, like rewarding any team that goes three months without any injuries. The problem with such an approach is that it potentially leads to incidents being covered up, rather than reduced. 

Behaviour-based safety incentive programmes that reward employees for engaging with health & safety initiatives and reporting hazards and near-misses are far more effective. An example might be to reward workers for wearing PPE. 

#9 Not setting a good example

In too many organisations, health & safety is regarded as a line responsibility rather than a senior management responsibility. 

The problem with this is that no company will ever foster a genuine safety culture without strong safety leadership from the very top. If senior management doesn't engage with a health & safety programme, this attitude will rub off on everyone else and dilute the effort. 

For employees to engage with health & safety initiatives, it is crucial that senior management 'walk the talk'. Actions talk louder than words, and all the slogans and posters in the world won't make the slightest bit of difference if management discredits or disregards the rules.

#10 Being complacent 

Most organisations have a complacency problem. And most directors think they are doing far better than they are in terms of health & safety. Having a false sense of security is more dangerous than having no sense at all. It creates all the right conditions for an accident to happen. 

Complacent companies are usually arrogant. They probably haven't had an accident. But there will be some tell-tale signs that this is more by luck than design; these organisations tend to have a record of near-misses and a lack of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and mechanisms for reporting issues and inciting improvement. 

The good news is that complacency can be cured with cultural change and leadership. And once an organisation has broken out of the complacency trap and is promoting a living, breathing, working health & safety programme, the benefits will reach far beyond the original goal of minimising the risk of accidents.