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Why you should challenge unsafe behaviours and how to do it

27 July 2023

Health and safety specialist, Bethany Holroyd, shares how she went about raising concerns over unsafe work practices.

Why you should challenge unsafe behaviours and how to do it
Bethany reminds us that health and safety is everyone's responsibility. Image credit: Bethany Holroyd

I recently spotted unsafe work practices and decided to challenge them.

Across from our offices, I spotted a low loader reversing into oncoming traffic, across a cycle path (which I was later advised was technically closed) and without a banksman (also known as traffic marshals).

People plant interface is a topic that often arises within the health and safety (H&S) sector.

It accounts for approximately 19% of all fatal injuries - a statistic that’s remained largely unchanged for several years.

Having dealt with several incidents and near miss reports on this exact topic recently, I knew that I had to act on what I’d seen, and I did so without hesitation.

Choosing who to speak to carefully

I headed round to the site to share my concerns and asked to speak with the site manager.

I think the operatives on site were a little confused as to why I was there, but I just maintained I wanted to speak with the site manager – and didn’t discuss with them what I wanted to speak to them about.

It’s best to not get into conversations with anyone unless they have influence over the situation. In this case, it was the site manager, this ensures that anything you raise can be dealt with promptly and without any potential for conflict.

Sharing my concerns

When I met with the site manager, I explained I wanted to report a H&S concern, explaining what my job was and that I worked in the industry.

I joked that I wasn’t a clipboard warrior, just a concerned fellow construction industry professional.

I shared a video I’d taken and once we’d talked about what happened, we had a chat about the industry and similar incident reports I’d worked on recently.

We agreed that this was a great spot and could serve as an educational piece to their team.

Doing the right thing

My concerns were really well received and they took my details so that they could share the outcomes of my report back to me.

I left knowing I’d done the right thing.

I also then used this as my own opportunity to share the importance of ‘not walking by’ on LinkedIn and with my business internally.

Why did I decide to challenge it?

Ultimately, because I care – I want everyone to go home safe at the end of the day, and this was fundamental to my discussion with the site manager.

Because I’d taken a video the site manager could see exactly what happened as it happened, they agreed with my concerns, and were extremely thankful for the report.

Challenging something that doesn’t look right

My advice for anyone who sees something that doesn’t sit right with them is to challenge with care.

Nothing good comes from being condescending or making people feel like they’ve done something wrong.

It may have been that in this instance they were working in this way for reasons unknown to me as a spectator.

As a health and safety professional this was actually one of the questions I asked, as I wanted to understand their approach, which was when I learned that the cycleway was technically closed.

We then spoke about how better signage and barriers would prevent members of the public entering that area.

It’s better to talk things out

I know this can feel nerve wracking and intimidating – especially if what you’re seeing is happening outside a sector you’re familiar with or even outside of your job in your personal time.

I remind myself that these individuals all have families, and if I have an opportunity to prevent harm to make sure they go home safe to them at the end of the day, then I’ll absolutely act on it.

Whenever you have any concerns about an approach to an activity it’s always important to raise them.

It’s so much better to talk about these things, even if it transpired that there was no issue in the end – I’d much rather that, than walk by and do nothing.

How to challenge an unsafe behaviour

  1. Identify who the key people are that you need to speak to. This could be a site manager, general manager, store manager, etc.
  2. Explain what you saw, stick to the facts and be as detailed as you can be. Keep the conversation positive, you’re not there to criticise but to share your concerns.
  3. Images speak 1000 words – if it’s safe to do so, try to get a photo. Those who you’re reporting to may not have been on site at the time, and so a photo or video can be really helpful in understanding the situation.
  4. If appropriate, leave your contact details so that any actions you may have agreed on can be followed up on – this may not apply to all instances.
  5. If this happens while you’re at work, your own organisation will have internally reporting procedures, so it’s really important to make sure you report internally. Unless your safety team know about these encounters, they can’t do anything to support you.

H&S is everyone’s responsibility.

Regardless of your job title, level of experience or organisation you work for – we all have a duty to keep each other safe.

  • Bethany Holroyd, health and safety business partner at WSP