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Health and safety within the UK has a bad name, it is often ridiculed in the tabloid papers and there is no shortage of stories about ridiculous decisions made, wrongly, in the name of health and safety. One of the oldest urban myths is that children have to wear safety equipment to play conkers.  For those of you who are not familiar with the game according to Wikipedia “conkers” is a traditional children’s game in Britain and Ireland played using the seeds of horse-chestnut trees – the name ‘conker’ is applied to the seed. The game is played by two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string: they take turns striking each other’s conker until one breaks”.

According to the Health and Safety Executive’s website they say this is an urban myth and they’ve added the following to their website “This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth.  A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently some schools appear to have banned conkers on ‘health & safety’ grounds or made children wear goggles, or even padded gloves! Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about.  If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety”.

I think the recent fire in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria in Brazil and the death of 235 people has put health and safety into focus. I am not going to second guess the investigation, but I suspect that if all the health and safety precaution were in place, which we have in the UK, there would not be the same number of deaths. Last year there were garment factory blazes in Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan which killed 300 workers including children. The windows in the both factories were barred and in one case, emergency services had to break down a wall to rescue employees. Good fire precautions would have prevented the fire or at least allowed the majority of the staff to escape the fire. When people moan about health and safety, I always reply, “Nobody goes to work in the morning expecting to die”. When people are killed or injured at work it is often because they have ignored the rules which were there to keep them safe.

So coming back to business continuity, what is the relevance of health and safety to business continuity?

  1. During an incident it is always tempting to “play the hero” and in the life saving phase of the incident this may be appropriate. What we need to make sure is that, beyond the life saving phase, we do not put ourselves at risk. Post incident, employees may think the situation merits circumventing health and safety rules to recover quicker. As managers, managing the recovery, I think we have to make sure that the staff responding to the incident is aware that they should not put their lives in danger and normal health and safety rules apply.
  2. Another time we may put ourselves in danger is working long hours in an attempt to recover the organisation. We may work 16-20 hours and go home for a quick sleep and then return to the incident room. Staff working long hours and then driving home are at risk from car crashes. Secondly if staff work long hours, they may suffer fatigue, make poor decisions and not be actually contributing to the recovery. If long hours are needed, then you need to introduce a shift system and get staff sent home.
  3. One of my jobs as Emergency Planning Manager at Anglian Water, as soon as a major incident occurred, was to find staff members to fill all the shifts at the incident room. Coming back to the nightclub and the garment fires, do you have mechanisms in place to check that, if there is a disaster your staff are not involved or that the garment factory is not part of your supply chain. Encouraging staff to call in to say they are safe, if there is a disaster in the country or city they are visiting, is good practice for business travelers. If you understand you supply chain, and not all companies do, as the horse in Tesco’s beef burgers has shown recently, then you should know fairly quickly if a garment fire in Pakistan may involve your organisation.
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