The Significance of Safety and Health in the Workplace
It is customary for Board Meetings to have an agenda item titled 'Statutory Compliances'. The answer to the implied question from the Directors will invariably be a bald “Yes” which is supported by a table listing out various rules and regulations and statutes and presenting the status in the organisation. But, this merely states that the company’s licences and permits are current. It says little about whether, as a matter of fact, the various statutes are complied with in letter and spirit. Since we are discussing here the safety and health in the workplace, such a statement says little about what is the real position regarding safety and health in that company.
One of the sets of rules that governs the operation of any factory is the Factories & Boilers Act. This is a document that few factory managers read, as they would have delegated the task of ensuring that all permits and licences are current to a lower functionary. It is rare for even that worthy to actually read the provisions of this important statute. A careful reading will show that many of the provisions related to safety and health in the work place, and are to be scrupulously implemented. This will happen only if the management regards this as a priority, and checks at regular review meetings that the various provisions are observed in both the letter and spirit.
This means that a mechanism of audits and checks will need to be put in place to ensure that the various provisions are actually being complied with. If we consider fire prevention and fire safety precautions, it is incumbent on the management to ensure that all provisions of the statutes are being followed. It is not enough to check off the boxes in terms of physical items to be present, such a fire extinguishers, hydrants, buckets of sand, and so on. There should be a system to check that all of these are in working condition, with evidence of the last time they were checked. Management must ensure that staff are trained in the use of these specialised prices of equipment. There is a drill to be followed on the fire alarm being sounded. Is there evidence of practice drills having been held to familiarise the people with these procedures? Are mock drills held at periodic intervals? What does the evidence from such mock drills say about the preparedness of the people to act as per standard operating procedures in the event of a fire? Only by such means, can change be brought about in the attitudes of people. This is especially true in India, where we have a poor safety culture, and little respect for rules and instructions.
This cynicism and disregard for the rules, leads most businesses to ignore safety and health at the workplace. During the rare inspections by inspectors from the government, violations are easily ‘managed’ using the instrument of the bribe. Even where a business has put the necessary physical equipment in place, unless this is followed by training and drills, they remain mostly decorative and of little use. The employees will look at these items of equipment with cynical disdain, and regard them as one more example of the management doing things to ‘comply’ with rules and laws, and not to make any material impact on the occupational safety and health status of the factory in question. There, management suffers a double whammy: the expense on the equipment may have helped to comply with the rules, but they have actually worsened the relationship with the workers.
Now, imagine if the management had put safety and health as a high non-negotiable priority and followed up the purchase of equipment and tools with training and awareness creation sessions and regular audits. Workers will begin to see that these pieces of equipment and processes are intended to improve their safety and protect their health while working. They will notice that this is monitored by the top management, indicating that it has become a priority. They will start to become aware of and sensitive to the needs of safety in the workplace, and will see how their acts of commission and omission affect the safety and health of their fellow workers.
This will spill over from the workplace to the home and to public places too, setting off a virtuous cycle of change in attitudes. Simple safety rules learnt at the factory will have a big impact in improving safety at home, especially where children are concerned, and also in the kitchen. The increasing use of electrical gadgets leads to a corresponding increase in the risk of accidents. I know from my experience that workers have reported improved safety compliance in their homes. The purely transactional and task-based relationship between management and employees is transformed into a collaborative one, and this will have its impact on industrial relations, too. The health and occupational safety of employees and staff will become an area of collaboration and agreement, helping to build a better work culture. I have seen this happen, and cannot agree with the cynics who will argue that workers will take these for granted and continue their old ways. This will lead to lower absenteeism, higher productivity, better quality and lower costs. My experience setting up and growing my company to global scale using local resources, convinces me that we can achieve world class in manufacturing in Kerala and India, but only if our thinking, too, is of world class. Most hi-tech manufacturing companies in Kerala and India that run profitably will agree with my views, and would be practising these in their factories.
A good place to start would be to read the statutes carefully and understand their intent. Make your plant managers and key managers do the same. Make them personally responsible for full compliance of these rules in their respective domains. Only then will the rest follow.