Staff shortages - What are the Health & Safety implications?

Staff shortages are at a crisis point in many UK industries. This blog looks at the risks labour shortages introduce for worker health & safety and how businesses can manage this situation. 

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures, the number of job vacancies in the UK has hit historic highs this year. The latest data shows that in the third quarter of 2022, there were 1,266,000 job vacancies - that is 59% more than at the start of the pandemic. 

Almost every sector - from healthcare and hospitality to construction and manufacturing - is grappling with chronic staff shortages. The problem with this situation is that although the workforce may have contracted, the workload hasn’t. To keep up with demand, people must either work faster or longer - potentially with inadequate supervision. 

An accident waiting to happen…

From a health & safety perspective, this is an accident waiting to happen. Here’s why: 

  • The need for speed can make workers less careful and prone to errors of judgement.
  • Workers may cut corners or skip vital steps to complete jobs more quickly. For example, they might not bother to put on the recommended PPE. 
  • Attempts to get the job done more quickly may lead to a lapse in protocols and checks. For example, in 2021, CNBC TV reported that some delivery companies were telling drivers to skip vehicle safety inspections to keep up with demand.
  • Workers may be expected to work longer hours. Overtired workers are more susceptible to accidents and injuries. 
  • In-house skill shortages lead to greater reliance on outside contractors who may not be au fait with health & safety policies. 
  • Skill gaps result in incompetence as workers are expected to take on roles in areas where they have no experience or training. 
  • Too busy for training: training falls by the wayside when people and businesses are under time pressure. 
  • Working shorthanded leaves fewer eyes and ears to spot and report safety concerns that might otherwise be identified and corrected. 
  • Supervisor shortages: it is not just operators or workers who are in short supply; it’s managers too. With fewer supervisors, it becomes harder to enforce health & safety protocols and rules. 

Sleepwalking into a health & safety nightmare

Concerns such as these led the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) last September to urge employers coping with staff shortages not to ‘sleepwalk’ into a health & safety nightmare. IOSH called for the protection of workers not to be compromised in the drive to maintain productivity levels and drew up a checklist for businesses that are having to cope with staff shortages. 

How to manage worker shortage safety risks

So what can organisations do to mitigate the health & safety risks that arise from staff shortages? 

We’ve consulted the IOSH’s checklist and other sources to compile some pointers: 

  • Review policies and procedures: if you haven’t reviewed your health & safety management system for a while, you may not have spotted the gaps that hybrid working and staff shortages have created in your workplace. Review health & safety policies and procedures to establish whether they are still viable or need to be revised, and consider whether your risk assessments need to be updated. 

  • Embrace tech: the FRMS (Fatigue Risk Management Systems) used by the airline industry could be deployed in other sectors where workers are required to operate heavy equipment. Tech advancements such as AI-optimised wearables make monitoring biomedical markers and brain activity easier, enabling fatigue to be detected before it causes an accident. 

  • Invest in training: when staff are overloaded, it is easy to overlook or postpone training. However, not only is training a legal requirement, it is an essential factor in preventing accidents and ensuring staff retention. When staff are supported and feel they have all the necessary tools to do their jobs, they are likelier to stay in a job. Evidence of training can also help employers to defend claims should an accident occur. 

  • Don’t overlook mental health: the pressure of over-working means employees will be more at risk of burnout, exhaustion, depression, isolation, anxiety and stress. Organisations need to signal to staff that their mental health matters, and being open about it will lead to support, not discrimination. They should back this commitment up with a clear mental health strategy and policies to ensure employees experiencing mental health problems immediately get the support they need. 

In many cases,  the underlying issue isn’t worker shortages. It is the shortage of employers willing to offer what is necessary - safe working conditions, training, wages in line with inflation and other benefits - to attract and retain workers. If many employers reviewed and upgraded their ‘offer’ to new recruits and rewarded existing employees, there wouldn’t be such a problem. 

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