For too long many companies have viewed health and safety issues as a necessary cost of the business, like insurance or business rates. But forward-looking managers are starting to see that a positive attitude to the issue can add bottom-line profits by improving productivity, reducing downtime and raising staff morale.

Health and safety issues have generated all kinds of laws, committees, recommendations and statistics world wide, from bodies as varied as the European Agency for Health & Safety at Work, NIOSH and OSHA in the USA and the UK’s Health & Safety Executive.

Yet every year hundreds die and millions are injured at work around the world, with little sign that the situation is improving. UK statistics show a fall in fatalities from the mid 1980s but injuries have not been reduced, with some 1.6m accidents occurring each year.

While management must pay heed to legislation, particularly as penalties get tougher, the profit potential in better workplace safety may have a far more positive appeal. The total cost of injuries at work to UK business, for example, is reckoned to be around £11.6bn ($17bn) a year – equal to £478 ($720) per employee – so even a 10% improvement would add around £1.16bn to profits nationally – something that is sure to catch the attention of every director and manager.

Most countries tackle the issue with a mixed package of incentives – in the form of training grants and courses – and penalties, in the form of fines or even prison sentences for negligent management. More and more lawyers around the world are operating on a US-style no-win, no-fee basis because they see the opportunity for lucrative civil action, with no upper limit on damages. The effect on the bottom line could become far more severe.

The cost of accidents

So how should one set about turning what could spell disaster for a company into an opportunity for increased profits? A start can be made by looking at the direct results of injury or death at work – both personal and financial. The human cost cannot be expressed in direct financial terms, in the suffering caused by perhaps a moment of negligence or inadequate protection. But the financial implications are clear and far reaching.

• Poor morale When employees see a colleague injured or even killed, their productivity, attention to detail and quality of work will suffer for days or even weeks. A poor safety record will affect staff morale throughout the business as a symptom of uncaring management.

• Downtime Work stops after an accident and investigations may further delay production. Machinery or materials might have been damaged, causing further delays. Downtime can affect deliveries, putting the company’s reputation and business future at risk.

• Insurance and legal costs Insurance premiums may increase after an accident and in the case of legal action, account must be made for the time that staff will spend in preparing the case, the cost of legal defence and possible fines. Should an injured employee seek civil damages, costs could increase dramatically.

Full risk assessment

The first step in making health and safety part of a profit improvement plan is to ensure that it is understood where the risks lie and what is needed to prevent accidents occurring.

The UK Health & Safety Executive’s 1999/2000 bulletin identified the most common causes of death and injury, a pattern which is likely to be similar in most developed countries. A quarter of all dangerous occurrences were related to lifting machinery, with more than a third involving some form of handling procedure. Back problems, the plague of modern industrial workers, are among the most costly yet preventable of work-related injuries.

Many companies prefer to use the objectivity and experience of an outside organisation to work alongside their own management. Outsourcing this first, critical stage can help ensure that possible risk areas are not missed.

Some danger areas

• Mechanical handling Cranes, hoists, slings, fork trucks and other mechanical lifting appliances all present a risk if they are not used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions or if they not correctly maintained.

• Manual handling A third of all reported accidents in the UK involve manual handling, so training staff in correct lifting and handling techniques could be one of the best investments any employer could make.

• Flammable gases Fortunately, back pain is unlikely to result in a fatality, but the misuse of gas cylinders can cause loss of life and/or property. The latest UK HSE bulletin shows that flammable gas-related incidents are rapidly increasing. Staff need to know how to use gases correctly, as well as being able to understand and interpret information on gas cylinders.

• Protective clothing One of the simplest ways to see a major improvement in safety is to insist that all staff wear the protective clothing provided.

Managing health and safety

Health and safety must become part of the basic fabric of running a business, with board-level attention and focus. Without clear targets and objectives and regular attention there is little chance that any company will significantly improve any business function, least of all one which has too often been well down senior management’s list of priorities.

With the safety assessment completed and senior executives fully involved, work can be done on the company’s health and safety policy document.

The UK Provision & Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) 1998 is just one example of the type of legislation now in force in most countries. It states that every employer shall ensure that every person using work equipment must receive adequate training and extends this requirement to anyone involved in managing and supervising those who operate equipment.

A health and safety policy should make clear who is responsible at various levels for this function, provide targets for improved performance in key areas, show how to achieve them and what each employee must contribute. In most cases training will be an essential part of the plan, a function which may well be handled by an external training organisation.

Total team involvement

Safety is not just a management or board task. Senior management is responsible for making sure that every employee understands the company policy and the role that they can play. Involve all staff in the project from the earliest stages. Unlike many business decisions, the workforce has as much to gain from a successful health and safety drive as the most senior company manager.

Make sure that the health and safety message is communicated at all levels. Keep everyone involved with regular bulletins, progress reports and initiatives, and eventually good safety practice will become part of the corporate culture. The workforce will be more motivated and committed, and there will be the quality standards needed to achieve success in today’s market.

Professional guidance and support is available from a variety of sources.

As well as a variety of official papers and guidelines, business and trade organisations and the leading training companies provide a comprehensive selection of services, from safety assessments to on-site training and management courses.