Structural Collapse: How good are your risk controls?

27th July 2016

Structural collapse has very much been in focus in2016 with a number of high profile and tragic events involving power plants, houses, bridges and industrial structures. In early July we heard about an incident where 5 workers lost their lives due to the structural collapse of a wall at a waste recycling plant in Birmingham, UK.

Families, friends and colleagues taken away in the blink of an eye and the daunting task for another set of rescuers to recover the bodies of the men from the devastated site. In addition to the personal tragedy, a business is now unable to operate and faces an uncertain future.

Was yesterday any different to today?

We are happy to talk about the Health & Safety performance of UK plc overall as one in which we can be very proud. This feels especially appropriate when we consider our achievements and our position near the top of the list of the safest countries in the world to work in. Is this reality or perception? Highly pertinent to this question is the recent news headline that companies based in the UK have been fined in excess of £8 million since the launch of the new Sentencing Guidelines in February2016. Are we slipping backwards or is the real day-to-day performance becoming more transparent and impactful on the overall success of a company?

Are we overstating how much we have achieved in controlling risk? Events such as structural collapses should cause us to stop and think about where our Health & Safety performance actually is in terms of maturity. It should force us to scrutinise how we organise ourselves to keep our teams healthy and safe each and every day.

Who was to blame?

In the immediate aftermath of an incident, it is common to urgently want to understand what has happened and who is responsible.I often describe this as the “clamour for blood”. The reality is that, while the immediate causes of incidents may seem quite apparent, the key root causes may be a lot more challenging to arrive at. Not least because of the very high level of desire required at the most senior level of management to critique their own performance long before they challenge those at the sharp end onsite. In the case of a structural collapse, such self-reflection might include what has been approved for spend in terms of assessing and repairing ageing structures and equipment.

What are your key business risks?

The responsibility for managing the safety of structures can sometimes be unclear; often lost between the role of landlords and tenants or whether it is a Health & Safety issue or better dealt with by engineering teams.

Regardless of who owns the topic, implementing formal and informal inspection programmes can be straightforward. When you ask a business director what their key business risks are, will they identify the structural integrity of the building and plant on that list, alongside more familiar topics such as margin, EBITDA or operational efficiency?

Executive Awareness of Risk Profile

A proper awareness of the business risk profile at the board and executive level is key in making sure basic risk controls are effective day to day. If non-financial business risks are not viewed as significant, they will be doomed when it comes to competing for resources such as time and money to make improvements or repairs.

Impact of Brexit and commercially challenging times

The impact of Brexit in terms of new challenges for businesses is far from clear but the global recession we have recently been through shows what life can be like when times are tough. Refit and investment decisions are put back, and, at best, we move into the mode of intermediate or short term fixes. These are the times when we really show, through behaviour as leaders, what is important as opposed to what we just say is important.

The role of the H&S practitioner

As a business leader, does your Head of Health &Safety challenge you about managing key business risks? If they do, how do you respond? Challenging and managing upwards is one of the great opportunities, which must be mastered by those who aspire to be at the top of their field.

As a business leader you should relish and respond well to a constructive challenge. It is far better to challenge yourselves as a leadership group, than be challenged by the regulator, police or a lawyer!

Note that if your Head of H&S is not regularly constructively challenging you around key business risks, then you may need a new Head of H&S.

What you need to know and do

What is your level of confidence that every building and structure you have responsibility for is safe and will still be standing tomorrow? Has the executive group considered how a structural collapse would impact the effective operation of the business and what has been done to prevent and mitigate this?Being able to answer these questions confidently, from an informed position, should be of real importance to you and the success of your business.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, please get in touch

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