Back to business in a ‘safe’ workplace

How can HR put health and safety issues into perspective for employees after
the devastating events in New York on 11 September?

The Sunday Times recently featured an article entitled "How New York
got back to business". It featured two photographs, dramatic in their
starkness. The first illustrated the wrecked offices of Lehman Brothers, the
Wall Street bankers and brokers in lower Manhattan. The other was a shot of the
entrance to the Sheraton Manhattan hotel with a couple of men lifting large
flat boxes off their stacks on the sidewalk.

The significance of these two seemingly unrelated images was that 1,500
displaced workers from Lehman Brothers had taken over the 650 rooms of the
Sheraton Manhattan hotel and rooms once designed for paying guests had, for the
moment, been turned into office accommodation.

The ramifications of 11 September will probably live on for years. People’s
perspective of their health and safety in high-rise workplaces and in
aeroplanes will also have changed – not just in New York but around the world.
Those of us who work in the field of risk management may now also have to
contend, at least in the short term, with people who see more risk, rightly or
wrongly, in seemingly innocent things.

Consider Section 2 of the UK Health And Safety At Work Act 1974.
"Employers must, as far as it is reasonably practicable, safeguard the
health and safety and welfare of employees and in particular provide (d) a safe
place of work, with safe access and egress". The events of 11 September
give this a sobering perspective. Indeed there has been some suggestion in the
US press that, for the time being at least, people may go off the idea of a
place of work situated in the sky – could this be mirrored in the UK? This
debate about "a safe place of work" has not just been confined to high-rise
buildings. Flight attendants too have been expressing their concerns.

The American newspaper USA Today covered this in a piece "Some flight
attendants rethink careers". The piece reported on how some crews were
reluctant to fly as they reviewed the events of 11 September. The piece ended
with a poignant thought. "Try to imagine your workplace being taken over
by terrorists. For most people it will never happen but for these people it
just could".

In the UK this brings us back to Section 2 of the Health And Safety at Work
Act and the requirement for employers to provide a safe place of work. Will we
have to redefine our thoughts on this?

HR professionals will need to show a level of empathy towards staff who
express concern and will need to liaise closely with risk management
professionals to manage the issues that emerge.

In most organisational cultures HR is the first stop for employees under
pressure. As professionals we will do a disservice to customers if we
perpetuate a mentality of "seeing ghosts" where there aren’t any, or
conversely if we do not take new risks seriously.

If an unacceptable level of risk is present, let’s manage it. If risk is
infinitesimally small let’s just get on with life.

By David Hodgkinson a local authority health and safety adviser and
member of the CIPD

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