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Collaborate to avoid potential for conflict between HR and health and safety functions, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 20 May 2016 | 11:34 am | 2 min. read

FOCUS: Professionals in health and safety and those in HR can typically work in isolation - and, on occasion, at odds with each other. But better cooperation between these professions makes good business sense.

Health and safety and employment law are related and those parts of an organisation should co-operate. In some situations, it may be appropriate for one profession to take the lead while the other plays a supporting role, while in others both sets of professionals will have different skills of equal importance. For example:

  • complaints about suitability of personal protective equipment (PPE) by workers because it causes them discomfort, or where adjustments need to be undertaken to the physical working environment - HR to lead, with health and safety professionals taking on a supporting role;
  • post-incident internal investigations, during which evidence comes to light justifying a separate HR investigation into potential disciplinary action – health and safety to lead, with HR involved where necessary;
  • implementation of new health and safety policies - multi-disciplinary approach. Occupational stress is a classic example, both in terms of pre-emptive risk assessment of potential stressors and in rehabilitating those suffering from ill-health back to work.

Recently the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that an employee had been fairly dismissed where he had misrepresented the extent of his injury and his capacity to return to work as a bus driver following a fall at work. In that dispute between Metroline West Ltd and Mr Ajaj the EAT upheld that taking sick leave when perfectly well demonstrates dishonesty and a fundamental breach of trust and confidence by an employee, and can amount to gross misconduct justifying summary dismissal.

This was fundamentally an HR case, but the facts arose from a workplace accident – so the potential for overlap between health and safety and HR functions existed at various stages. Ultimately, Metroline was entitled to dismiss Mr Ajaj as his dishonesty amounted to gross misconduct, regardless of his physical capability to sit down for long periods while working as a bus driver.

An organisation's safety culture can have a significant bearing on its overall safety performance. Influencing this for the better will take a variety of different forms, including leadership and direction from senior managers as well as effective worker engagement. However, fair and consistent enforcement of health and safety rules, policies and systems of work should also form part of the overall strategy for encouraging a more positive safety culture.

That said, enforcement of the rules – where employees know that the consequence of their actions might lead to disciplinary action of some sort – is only part of an employer's arsenal in improving behaviours and safety culture. On the flip side, employers shouldn't lose sight of the potential benefits from recognising and positively rewarding good safety performance, which can play an equally effective role in influencing employee attitudes and behaviours.

Kevin Bridges is a health and safety law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.