Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Repurposing manufacturing? Address the health and safety risks

Out-Law News | 22 Apr 2021 | 2:15 pm |

Zoe Betts tells HRNews that repurposing manufacturing operations can introduce new risks or heighten existing ones
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  • Transcript

    How does a gin company start creating sanitiser at short notice? How do you move from making interior textiles for cars to medical-grade face masks? They are just two examples of manufacturers switching products to keep the business afloat, and help society at the same time. As the managing director of London-based firm 58 Gin told the BBC “If we didn’t do something, and do it very, very quickly, we’d also have no business”.  Well they did act quickly and the business has survived. 

    Many other manufacturers have done the same – changing what they produce to meet significant demand for products and equipment identified as pivotal to the fight against Covid-19. So, things like hand sanitiser, Covid-19 testing kits and medical products - repurposing production lines and developing new skillsets urgently. 

    It sounds great, and it is great, but there are legal risks which come with entering an entirely new area of expertise. Many of those risks were flagged up at the start of the pandemic in an article which featured in Outlaw – ‘Coronavirus: manufacturing change in the fight against Covid-19’ looks at regulatory compliance and we are coming back to this to consider perhaps the key concern which is around health and safety. The point is that repurposing manufacturing operations can introduce new risks or heighten existing ones. So, let’s look at what this means in practice and its relevance to HR. Zoe Betts is a health and safety specialist who is currently helping a number of clients who are repurposing their plants, or thinking about doing so. She joined me by video-link from Chester:

    Zoe Betts: “It’s fascinating actually how many companies have managed to diversify their product base so quickly in response to the pandemic, fascinating and impressive, I think, lots of entrepreneurial spirit and lots of people contributing to the national effort to respond to the pandemic. So I think by way of example, we've seen gin, going to hand sanitizer, we've seen Formula One cars to ventilators and high fashion to PPE, so this is really a very rapid change but what I have to say is that the law hasn't changed as rapidly. In fact, the law hasn't changed at all, we've still got health and safety laws that apply and even though the Health and Safety Executive have said that they will take quite a pragmatic and proportionate response to certain aspects of this pandemic, we know that they will not stand idly by if employers are putting employees at risk because they've chosen, however well meaning that choice may be, to diversify their manufacturing. We've got to make sure that we haven't introduced, or heightened, any risks which are then not being managed properly. So, without getting too legal, we still have the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and those very broad general duties that are imposed on employers to safeguard employees’ health and safety and we've also got the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations of 1999 and together, the crucial thing really to take away from this, and this is the advice that we give to our clients who are asking us about these issues, is risk assessment. I know that a lot of health and safety professionals, or HR professionals, may groan when I say risk assessment, but that is it, that is your blueprint for action, that's how you get this right. You do a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of your new activities, your new workplace, whatever it may be, your new production process, you understand the risks that you've created, or the risks that you've introduced and what is reasonable to control those risks. So there's no real magic to this, it’s the way health and safety has always been managed, it’s how you comply with the law and that’s down to your  is really your risk assessment process, and then what you do is you overlay on that training and supervision and monitoring. The risks have been around for a long time, the risks in many cases are not new, but they may be new to that particular environment. So, there we're talking about vibration, noise, new or expectant mothers, young workers, none of these things can be ignored. If you're using machine in a different way, or you brought in new machinery, or new substances, they have got to be risk assessed to make sure that you're not exposing workers to risks that you're not managing properly.”

    Joe Glavina: “You mentioned the health and safety professionals. Is there a cross over with HR?”

    Zoe Betts: “I think there absolutely is. I think this is really one of those areas where health and safety professionals and HR colleagues can work together and have a really effective dialogue. I understand the business and the commercial imperative to diversify and to create new products and to help with the pandemic but we've got to make sure that we're keeping employees safe and we're keeping them in work. Those are really two sides of the same coin and I think they can be some great teamwork between the health and safety professionals and the HR professionals. I think it starts, really, with consultation. I think it starts with two-way communication. I think it would be wrong to see this as something which should be imposed on employees. I think they've got to be consulted, I think their views should be sought and whilst I don't want to stray into employment law, because that's certainly not my area, we've got to make sure that asking people to do something different to their normal duties is a reasonable instruction and one that they're comfortable with and on board with. I think we all agree that people work better, and tend to work more safely, when they're engaged in the activity and they understand why it's being done and they support it. So, I think the consultation, the communication is key, but then after that I think it really comes down to upskilling and reskilling and supporting people in the workplace. If, for example, we're bringing new people into the workplace because we've got a number of our existing workforce perhaps self-isolating at home or they're on sick leave, we've got to make sure that those new people that we bring in are adequately trained, that we've given them a proper induction and that we really understand whether they've got any manufacturing experience at all because if they haven't they're coming from a relatively low base and I think the employer’s duty is to make sure that those people are properly instructed and they're given the right information. So a lot of it has to do with training of new employees, but also our existing employees. It would be totally wrong to assume that the skill base that they've got, and the safe systems of work that are in place that they've been trained on, are the relevant ones for the new activity and that they're fit for purpose. I think we've got to look at this with a fresh pair of eyes really, look at the new processes and the new activities and make sure that if people need training, that they're given that training. It’s going to be difficult, I think they'll have to be an enhanced degree of supervision, monitoring, auditing, inspecting - that's the advice we're giving to clients who are diversifying in this way because this is a fast moving environment and assessing somebody's competence on something which is unfamiliar to them, and that they've been asked to do, and they've been upskilling themselves or re skilling, that's a challenge, but it's a challenge that sits with the employer - they've got to make sure that they're not exposing people to unacceptable levels of risk. Then I think the last real area for me to touch on is support. I think people accept that throughout the pandemic many workers have been anxious, fearful. I think we've seen some statistics for the manufacturing sector, and others in particular, which show heightened degrees of transmission amongst workers and I think where people are prepared to add into the national effort to respond to the pandemic that's really commendable but it comes down to the employer reassuring those people that their safety is a priority and that if they've got fears they should raise them and that they will be listened to and responded to. So, I think, again, the support and the communication is going to be key to the success of these sorts of transitions.”

    Those issues are covered in more detail in an article which was published by the health and safety team at the start of the pandemic called ‘Repurposing manufacturing plants: health and safety risks’. You can find that on the Outlaw website and we have put a link to it in the transcript of this programme.

    LINKS
    - Link to ‘Repurposing manufacturing plants: health and safety risks’