Where should blame lie when staff are injured or even killed while at
work? Managers must be fully aware of
the latest health and safety legislation
Accidents on the rail network, in the workplace and on school trips have
featured heavily in the press recently.
If an employee, a member of the public, or indeed a school- child is killed
or badly injured in an accident, should someone be identified for blame? Ask
the question of a work colleague, a neighbour or indeed anyone you care to
choose and the answer will inevitably be ‘yes’.
Similarly, if you follow this up with the supplementary poser: should
society not only apportion blame but exact a level of retribution for workplace
errors, the answer will be repeated.
But is it really that simple? People responding to the above questions will
almost always see the issue as either very black or very white. They will not
consider the nuances of negligence in each individual case.
One needs to look at each case on an individual basis and ask the question:
"If someone is badly injured, maimed or indeed killed in the workplace,
did their manager or a member of staff in authority really consider an accident
might happen?" And perhaps more crucially: "If they were not aware,
were they negligent, taking into account their professional knowledge and
The answer to this will be different in each individual case. Sometimes
inaction – or indeed action – can be seen to be callously made with the full
knowledge of the likely consequences.
In other cases the omission may not have been realised but plainly should
In both instances blame needs to be apportioned and the full retribution of
the law to be rigorously applied.
However, when something goes wrong and it is transparent that the accident
was unforeseen and unexpected, the question is: "Should the same thinking
be applied to this as to wilful conscious negligence?" In other words,
should we always react in the same way – dishing out dollops of blame and
retribution in standard measures?
At critical moments we can often be quick to condemn carte blanche and this
may explain why middle managers within medium to large organisations often find
the health and safety arena hard to take on board. Many are conscious of a
sweeping H&S sword of Damocles hanging over their heads waiting to strike.
While this may or may not be true, it is the dominant perception – if
something goes wrong, despite a middle manager’s best efforts, they will still
get hauled over the proverbial hot coals. The result is that many middle managers
do little in terms of health and safety in the hope that the whole thing will
simply go away.
So what messages should HR be giving them in order to change this workplace
We need to make it clear to managers that they will be held accountable if
they make conscious decisions to take shortcuts or if it can be shown that they
failed to do something that someone in their position should have done because
of their background or professional knowledge.
However, we should also give the good news that if something unforeseen
happens despite best attempts to meet health and safety legislation, the
question that will be asked will be: "What more could they have done that
was reasonable?" If the answer is "nothing" then blame and/or
sanctions should not end up a factor.
Middle managers within organisations should have no need to be concerned
about their personal liability with regards to the health and safety arena as
long as they give health and safety their full and undivided attention.
David Hodgkinson is a local authority health and safety adviser and
member of the CIPD