Health and safety roundup: March 2021

We have taken a look at some of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) focus areas and key developments emerging over recent months. Here is a short summary of what we found:

Horizon Scanning - the HSE embraces technological tools

In recent weeks, we have seen the HSE launch a new ‘app’ and a series of podcasts to assist businesses in understanding their safety responsibilities.

It is not known whether the HSE had always intended to launch these technological tools now, or whether like many other businesses, the HSE has learnt to adapt and embrace new technologies over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. Either way, we consider this move to be a positive one, and one which we hope will help the HSE to re-engage with businesses in a more progressive and modern way.

Those who have been in the safety industry for a long time will remember when the HSE’s function was one more akin to ‘advisor’ than ‘regulator’. For many, there is a desire for  more open discussions with the HSE, as might have happened historically, in order to get more guidance from inspectors without fear of a Notification of Contravention (or worse). These new technological tools have the potential to open up the dialogue once again between the HSE and businesses, and to provide organisations with a source of advice without the risk of intervention.

It is not yet clear whether the introduction of these technological tools signifies a more general move towards contemporary methods of working with the HSE. Is it perhaps a signal that the HSE is moving away from its more traditional ways of working, and if so, could paperwork-heavy site visits and the publishing of lengthy HSE guidance booklets become a thing of the past? Are they soon to be replaced with paperless working, virtual site visits and ‘bite size’ guidance communicated via popular broadcasting methods? Only time will tell.

Here, we take a look at these new HSE initiatives which we hope mark the start of a new and exciting phase of modern regulator engagement.

The app

The HSE has released an app designed to help organisations understand the law, their health and safety rights and their responsibilities. It is aimed predominantly at small and medium sized organisations (SMEs) and includes three main sections as follows:

  1. The Health and Safety Toolbox – identifies key risks for SMEs with reference to HSE guidance to assist employers to understand their responsibilities in relation to each risk.
  2. A Guide to Managing Risk – sets out practical advice on risk assessment and managing risks within SMEs.
  3. Work-Related Stress – outlines the HSE’s stress management standards and provides guidance on how to meet them.

Although the app appears to contain information which is predominantly also available online via the HSE website, it does provide an easy to use and navigate portal for SMEs to use as a reference especially for those businesses that might not have their own safety management system to refer to.

The app also has the added benefit that it provides live updates to the latest guidance and a search function so that information can be accessed quickly and easily when out on site.

If businesses are able to evidence that the app is being referred to and the safety information contained therein is being implemented, it will go some way to demonstrate that safety standards are being met. Generally, the introduction of the app is seen by many as a positive step, but the cynic in us cannot help but wonder whether this new technology could also be used against businesses. For example, could an argument of inferred knowledge be made on the basis that a business has downloaded the app? If a business downloads the app but does not make good use of the guidance it offers, it may be more heavily criticised than if the app wasn’t downloaded at all.

Only time will tell how the app might be referred to in litigation but it is certainly a positive tool to be employed by SMEs in avoiding litigation if used properly.

The HSE podcast series

The HSE is launching a free podcast series ‘working with chemicals’ which provides digestible information for businesses following Brexit and the end of the UK transition period.

The changes to the way that chemicals will be regulated post-Brexit is complicated and this podcast series will hopefully be a very welcome listen to those businesses which are trying to navigate this issue.

It only takes a few minutes to sign up and access to the podcasts is free. Not all podcasts have been released but if the sign up process is anything to go by, we can expect information to be provided on biocides, classification and labelling of chemical substances, pesticides and REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals).

This is new ground for the HSE and we are pleased to see that such complex areas of law are being tackled in a succinct and hopefully easy to absorb manner. Hopefully the podcast series will distil the key issues to enable businesses to get to grips with these intricate matters quite quickly.

If they work effectively, the podcasts may dispense with the need for safety managers to read and interpret the lengthy and convoluted guidance currently contained within The EU-UK Trade Cooperation Agreement and other publications, and may open up lines of communication to enable businesses to get more open advice from the regulator.

Read other items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - March 2021