While there are businesses which pay very little heed to the requirements of UK health and safety law, they are thankfully few and far between. The vast majority of food and drink businesses across the UK view health and safety with the appropriate level of seriousness and have the proper systems and processes in place to protect both their employees and the public.
Against that background, the volume of enforcement action taken by the HSE and the number of successful prosecutions in the UK courts may come as something of a surprise. The year to March 2021 saw 199 successful prosecutions leading to fines totalling £26.9m. That was in addition to HSE inspectors issuing almost 3,000 formal enforcement notices requiring improvements to address identified breaches of health and safety law. If health and safety is, generally, being given the appropriate priority by business, why is this level of enforcement activity required?
One of the most common answers, across a range of sectors, is this: a gradual and, crucially, unidentified departure from established safe systems of work and approved procedures. This is a particularly true in relation to manufacturing, cleaning and maintenance processes, and therefore represents a significant challenge for the food and drink industry.
Ensuring that comprehensive risk assessments and carefully considered method statements are in place is undoubtedly important, but it is not enough. These must be living documents, not consigned to the (actual or virtual) filing cabinet once they have been prepared. It is human nature to innovate, to find a quicker, easier or "better" way of completing a task. Such innovation is not necessarily a good thing. A quicker way to clean machinery or an easier way to carry out maintenance on the production line will not always be safer. More often than not the opposite will be true. Ad hoc innovation on established safe procedures, even when done with the best of intentions, is a major risk for a food and drink business – particularly if senior management is unaware of what is actually happening "on the shop floor".
Having suitable and sufficient systems in place which are "…not sufficiently adhered to or implemented" amounts to the second tier of culpability under the sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences. Depending on the size of the organisation, the starting point for the fine at that level of culpability can be as high as £1.3m.
How do food and drink businesses mitigate this risk? The answer is a robust audit and assurance process coupled with regular refresher training and knowledge checks. This should include a continuing programme of scheduled and unannounced reviews of working practices; an audit of how well those practices align with the established risk assessments and method statements; and a system for ensuring that any deviation is dealt with quickly and refresher training implemented. This process must include not only line managers, but senior management too. If the worst happens, you do not want to be told by the HSE that the cause of the accident was a change in day to day working practices that your board knew nothing about. A daily walk round by senior management would be time well spent, both for giving an opportunity to spot unwelcome innovations and in creating a culture of compliance.