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Written by
on 05 March 2018


A UN weapons inspector may be used to working with bioweapons – but their health and safety advice is still useful.

The Guardian newspaper recently ran a report on accidents at laboratories tasked with handling biohazardous materials like Ebola, the Plague and Dengue virus. It was discovered that breaches and accidents at these firms are so common that the HSE is investigating incidents at a rate of one every two to three weeks.

Towards the end of the article, former UN weapons inspector Tim Trevan was interviewed. Although targeted at bio-research labs, Trevan’s advice applies to any firm – including those in the construction sector.

Look at your company culture

Many of the safety breaches reported by labs are explained as being caused by human error. Trevan isn’t so sure, “Blaming it on human error doesn’t help you learn, it doesn’t help you improve. You have to look deeper and ask: ‘what are the environmental or cultural issues that are driving these things?’”

Any business which tries to explain away failings, rather than meet challenges head-on will run into problems. Indeed, trying to excuse rather than fix problems will simply lead to repeat incidents in future.

Be proactive

“There is nearly always something obvious that can be done to improve safety,” says Travan. “One way to address issues in the lab is you don’t wait for things to go wrong in a major way: you look at the near-misses. You actively scan your work on a daily or weekly basis for things that didn’t turn out as expected. If you do that, you get a better understanding of how things can go wrong.”

An effective risk assessment is designed to include periodic reviews – it should not be a one-off exercise. But Trevan’s advice suggests that even the most conscientious firm can do more to improve health and safety on site.

Your responsible person should be tasked with identifying and implementing potential improvements at every opportunity.

Ask your employees

“Another approach is to ask people who are doing the work what is the most dangerous or difficult thing they do. Or what keeps them up at night. These are always good pointers to where, on a proactive basis, you should be addressing things that could go wrong.”

Because they are involved “at the coal face”, your employees are a great source of information about dangers on site. Consider allowing time for health and safety discussions as part of general tool talks for instance. Alternatively, encourage anonymous whistleblowing as a way for workers to raise issues of concern.

Common sense – for bio labs and construction firms

Trevan’s guidance shows that basic health and safety is simply a matter of applying common sense to the workplace. Fostering a “safe” working culture, proactively looking for potential problems, and asking employees about issues isn’t rocket science.

If you’d like more help and advice with any of these suggestions, Veritas Consulting is always on hand to help. Please get in touch to learn more.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter and Linkedin.

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