Successfully protecting a workforce has moved beyond hard hats and rule books, says United Utilities. Health and safety has, quite rightly, worked its way onto and up the boardroom agenda over the last few years

Spurred on, perhaps, by the Government’s ten year ‘Revitalising Health and Safety’ programme, begun in 2000, it is no longer the remit of the faceless manager on the shop floor, who appears to stop the business rather than enabling it. Indeed, a recent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) initiative urges company directors to take responsibility for leading Health and Safety (H&S) improvements within the organisation.

Admirable advice, but what do you do to improve H&S standards when you’ve addressed – and continue to address – all the ‘hard’ aspects of H&S: the policy and procedures, training, rule books and PPE? And how do you do this within the context of a rapidly changing organisation that is winning new business regularly?

This was the situation faced by United Utilities two years ago.

As a FTSE 100 national company with international interests, and a turnover of £1.9 billion, we already took our responsibilities towards our employees seriously. We’re a leading employer in Wales, Scotland and North West England, with employees operating as far afield as Australia, the Philippines, Estonia and Canada. Many of that 16,000 strong force work unsupervised in the field; others perform their duties in potentially hazardous environments, use heavy machinery or new technologies.

There have always been challenges involved in our type of business and we felt we were handling them well. But the really striking feature of United Utilities these days is the change in outlook. We are now focused, very strongly, on our customers. They expect us to be able to maintain and improve H&S standards. These are prerequisites. If we can’t convince them, we don’t win the contract – it’s as simple as that.

So, how do you drive down your accident levels and lost days even further, when they’re already among the lowest in the business? We got the Board on board, but a whole new approach was called for.

So we went soft

Richard Locke, head of regulation safety for United Utilities Service Delivery, explains. ‘When I’m trying to define our new approach to H&S, I ask people to think of the UK as a plc. One of the areas where UK plc’s H&S record needs to improve is on the roads – it experiences over 3,000 road deaths a year, many of which are attributable to speed.

‘The traditional safety management approach would be to have a policy, some guidance and then train people.’

UK plc has a policy on driving speed, and offers guidance on speed safety (in the Highway Code). The company trains people (driving lessons) and even evaluates the effectiveness of the training, with the driving test.

‘And yet how many of us still drive above the speed limit? ‘Policies and training aren’t enough,’ Locke emphasises. ‘You have to influence people’s hearts and minds in order to alter their behaviour. You have to involve them.’

Behavioural change is at the root of United Utilities’ new step change approach to H&S. Service Delivery has implemented a three year plan that moves away from just counting accidents into a whole new approach to measuring performance. This involves producing a ‘risk profile’ for our business and identifying deliverables to reduce the risk. With a target reduction of 85 per cent in risk profile over the three-year period, we need to know that the initiatives and programmes we implement will have a major impact.

‘Focusing on the softer, cultural issues of health and safety isn’t the easy route,’ says Peter Dobson, H&S general manager for United Utilities Service Delivery. ‘In fact it’s quite the opposite.

‘If you approach an employee with a seemingly offbeat idea, or if you want them to divulge something about themselves, to give something – you better have sensible data to back up why you’re doing it.

‘We had to be pragmatic before we could be creative.’

That pragmatism involved assessing risks to the business in eight focus areas: legislation, policy and procedures, occupational health, training, best practice, national initiatives, annual H&S plans and risk management. Each risk was then scored for its potential impact on business growth, performance and reputation, if the risks were not addressed.

Using this data, together with extensive employee consultation, a programme of risk reduction based on 30 initiatives per year was created. Every initiative has its own project sponsor – a senior manager – and a team that designs and delivers the project within the business. Each is assigned a timescale and delivery date, meaning some initiatives carry over from year to year of the three year programme.

The matrix that resulted from this groundwork may not be as lively as the one Keanu Reeves inhabits, but it has enabled United Utilities to pinpoint exactly where H&S can be improved, and to accurately measure how those improvements are progressing. H&S is the first item on every monthly team brief throughout the business.

So much for where and which, but what about how?

‘We wanted to maintain and enhance our effectiveness on employee safety, with some really innovative programmes that would capture people’s attention,’ says Peter Dobson.

‘But what emerged from discussions was that there was also a real opportunity to lift the agenda on occupational health, to improve the wellbeing of all our employees.’

New H&S initiatives were therefore designed not just to address the risks associated with a role, but the health issues related to the job, too. And at the root of all the initiatives was involvement: making our employees more aware of how their own behaviour affected their safety and their wellbeing. Some of the key initiatives employed by United Utilities in its step change programme are highlighted elsewhere in this article. These include:

  • SUSA (a behavioural safety programme)
  • Driver Risk (an assessment/improvement programme)
  • Pressure Surveys (managing stress in the workplace)
  • Surveillance & Screening (a major upgrade of occupational health programmes)
  • Communicate (a programme to address the issues surrounding communication of H&S topics to all employees) Progress so far – we are in year two of the three-year programme – is above our expectations.

It isn’t just about counting accidents. We have moved to a risk reduction approach which is proactive and has leading activators – anticipating where the problems might arise and preventing them from doing so. Obviously, when it comes to accidents, stress and the like, it’s an infinitely preferable system, but we’re aware that people still need the numbers, the trailing indicators, to show them it’s working.

And the numbers are looking good. Over the United Utilities group as a whole there has been a 21 percent reduction in the accident incident rate during the last 12 months, and a fall of 58 per cent over the last three years. Notifiable and reportable accidents are down by 28 per cent, and days lost by 37 per cent.

Year one of the ‘hearts and minds’ H&S programme in Service Delivery has seen a 27 per cent reduction in notifiable and reportable accidents. This takes the actual number of accidents down to 29 in 2002/2003, for all Service Delivery staff (water and electricity). By comparison, at the time of privatisation in 1989, the then North West Water suffered 450 notifiable accidents a year.

And there have been awards, too. The United Utilities team in Wales, which manages the water and wastewater operations for Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, has achieved a UK first qualification, and has won two H&S awards in the last six months.

In February, the team in Wales was the first in the UK to be awarded the Applied Ergonomics qualification for its invention of a device to help ease the strain of lifting manhole covers.

In March, the same team won a Safety Shield from Swansea and West Wales Occupational Safety Group, in recognition of their high standards of practice. And in May, they were presented with a bronze award for occupational safety by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).

In the same financial year, United Utilities service delivery business was a regional winner of the European Week for Safety and Health, with a programme of events that encouraged maximum involvement of employees – from developing ideas, through delivering activities, to participation. Further details of the European Week programme are given elsewhere in this article, but some of the more innovative elements (many of which have continued) were reflexology, Indian head massage, Tai Chi, healthy eating displays and yoga and meditation for stress relief. And the jewel in this year’s crown was the presentation, in May, of the RoSPA Gold Award, which reflected all the above achievements and Service Delivery’s continued commitment to the wellbeing of its employees.

So what has made the difference?

‘Commitment from board level down,’ says Richard Locke.

‘The business identifies ten critical success factors (CSFs) each year, and for the last two years, H&S has been CSF number one.

‘Heath and Safety is not a bolt on – it’s integral. And because of that positioning, our approach to health and safety has been able to change and grow along with the business.’

Having a behaviourally-based culture change programme – UCan – already in motion has really helped. UCan is about opening up, about team work and looking at other people’s approach. Without that, we’d have struggled to introduce a similarly based H&S programme so quickly and effectively.

As it is, the two programmes now complement each other. We can talk about how people at different levels of an organisation perceive health and safety. We can ask the difficult questions – like, are you encouraged to take risks? And do your managers walk the talk? – and expect to get answers, rather than threatened looks.

‘It’s the continuing encouragement to get involved,’ says Peter Dobson. ‘We have support everywhere in the business, at every level, and that’s because there’s been no heavy hand. Initiatives come from employee suggestions and discussion, as well as statistics. We run an employee champions scheme, where if an individual has a particular interest in, say, road safety, they can get involved in that steering group.

‘It’s about convincing people,’ Dobson continues, ‘that it’s worth taking individual responsibility for H&S, because then they can take the initiative, they can influence the agenda.’ That may sound noble, but the curious thing is, when you look at the vast majority of United Utilities’ H&S initiatives, they have one thing in common: they apply equally to our private, as well as our professional, lives.

If we drive more safely at work, we will do the same in our leisure time and may influence other family members to do likewise. If we can spot hazards quickly in our working environment, we may prevent accidents in the home. And if we are less stressed at work, our personal lives will benefit, too. That takes care of what’s in it for us, but what’s in it for the company, except a lot of time and effort?

‘Quite aside from the humanitarian issues,’ says Richard Locke, ‘there are sound commercial reasons for employing best practice in H&S.

‘We pride ourselves on being able to adapt to suit our customers’ needs and to work in partnership, and we have demonstrated those capabilities in our Contract Solutions business, which specialises in running the assets of other utility companies, in the UK and abroad. But in such circumstances, any failure in H&S would reflect not only on our own reputation, but also on our customer’s.

‘Damage the customer and we damage ourselves,’ says Locke. ‘We have to get it right, and we have to go on improving. The old, technical H&S skills are not enough. Now, H&S professionals have to be key to an organisation, to be at the heart of the business.’

And if those professionals at United Utilities had one wish for the future?

I’d like to see the mindset of people change, when it comes to looking at health and safety. To have chief execs look at our results and, instead of saying: ‘Oh, United Utilities reduced its accident rate by 21 per cent this year’, they’d say: ‘Look at this – 95 per cent of United Utilities employees want to go through its health surveillance and screening programme’.

Positive, proactive change, that’s the heart of it.

Published: 10th Jul 2003 in Health and Safety International