Remote health & safety: really?

The pandemic has incited dramatic changes in health & safety working practices, some for the better, others less so. As we embark on a gradual return to ‘normality’, will health & safety practitioners revert to old ways of working or is this a chance to embrace new approaches and technologies? Guest author Wayne Turner, MD of WT Consultancy, gives his view on the extent to which health & safety can be done remotely.  
# Risk Assessment

When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, on-site risk assessments were suspended. For essential industries such as food, farming and construction to continue, workplace hazards still had to be identified and addressed. Rather than being conducted face-to-face, risk assessments were executed via video call. As a practitioner, your eyes need to be everywhere, so this was less than ideal, especially with the potential for selective camera angling. 

As it happened, it was only a matter of weeks before on-site risk assessments resumed. Risk assessments are one health & safety activity that needs to be done face to face. It is the subtle but telling signs that you only pick up on when you are there in person. For example, a worker’s facial expression when they lift something they shouldn’t be lifting or an operator pressing a button they shouldn’t be pressing before they have carried out a safety-critical task such as checking an interlocking guard works. 

# New Technology

What has changed more permanently, though, is the way risk assessments are delivered. In the past, the findings were presented in person. People would typically stand in a huddle to listen, then use a shared pen to sign printed copies. Clearly, this wasn’t acceptable under Covid restrictions, so we tapped into our in-house app-building expertise to develop a remote solution. Now, we deliver the risk assessment findings via Zoom/Teams, then guide the customer to an app, where they can read and sign the risk assessments. The app then automatically populates a matrix showing who has signed, providing evidence of compliance for legal purposes. 

There are many examples of how app technology can transform health & safety processes and systems. Pre-use inspections of equipment can be carried out via a customised app that guides the user through each step and serves as documented proof of compliance. Another example is developing an app to check routes for over-hanging tree branches; a geolocate function identifies and takes images of any potentially dangerous trees so that a tree surgeon can be notified to remove them. 

# Training

Training is another area of health & safety that has undergone considerable change during the pandemic. We have observed a massive shift toward online training. As an ex-trainer myself, I had concerns over this delivery method. I was worried that the lack of personal interaction could leave delegates part-informed. Health & safety trainers have a moral obligation to ensure content has been communicated and understood - the following day, that attendee might be going onto a construction site or carrying out a pre-use inspection on a forklift truck for the first time. 

To my surprise and relief, we have found that technology is not letting anyone down. We are selective as to what training we deliver online. For example, we regularly run full-day CITB safety awareness courses remotely. Still, we do Farmwise training in a socially-distanced classroom as we cannot deliver this efficiently or effectively over Zoom/Teams. 

# Limitations

Remote working has massive potential to drive efficiencies in health & safety working practices, as less time is wasted travelling to sites or meetings. However, I would argue that there can be a trade-off in the quality of output.  Collaborative input from ‘water cooler’ discussions and ‘thinking time’ whilst travelling are two enriching activities that have been lost. A diary dominated by back-to-back Zoom/Teams meetings with no human interaction in between doesn’t provide a fertile breeding ground for creativity and ideas, and nor does it offer space for valuable reflection. 

Being forced into a remote working situation has had some unexpected but welcome consequences for health & safety working practices: a much-needed move away from producing long-winded, generic documentation such as risk assessments and method statements to a tailored app-based approach, for one. But some situations remain where there is simply no substitute for face to face contact…and the home working jokes about daytime TV and G&Ts in the afternoon are definitely starting to wear thin. 

About Wayne Turner

Wayne Turner is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Safety and Health (CMIOSH) and MD of WT Consultancy, a young, vibrant business with a fresh approach to managing companies’ health & safety requirements cost-effectively. Our consultants and trainers have vast experience in many workplace sectors, from construction and engineering to food and farming.