Jan 082016

Directors must resist the temptation to delegate their health and safety duties

Business DayAdmiral Hyman G. Rickover (USN), who was known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy”, made the following comment about responsibility and the art of delegation:

“Responsibility is a unique concept… You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you… If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else”.

These words have particular significance in the field of health & safety management, a somewhat neglected area of business operations which many directors seem to regard as just a tiresome administrative burden, and thus something which should be off-loaded to a junior manager as quickly as possible!

Delegation may seem the ideal solution but, as Admiral Rickover has pointed out, delegation does not absolve you of your legal responsibilities. The law says (in summary) that all employers have a responsibility to keep employees safe in the workplace, and in practice the burden of that responsibility – known as the “duty of care” – is carried by the company’s board of directors. So if there is a failure in the organisation’s health & safety management systems then the board of directors could be held directly and personally responsible.

This point was clearly demonstrated by the 2012 trial of Lion Steel Equipment for corporate manslaughter following the death of a maintenance worker who fell from the roof. Not only was the company itself charged with corporate manslaughter but its three directors were also charged individually with gross negligence manslaughter, an offence which can result in a substantial period of imprisonment.

What makes the Lion Steel case so important from the point of corporate governance is that one of the directors charged was actually the firm’s finance director, somebody who provided no operational input into the company’s day-to-day management. But that didn’t stop his name ending up on the charge sheet!

So, what should directors do before they decide to delegate their company’s health & safety management en bloc to a junior manager or an external consultant?

First, they need to ensure that their nominated person is qualified to the appropriate level and that this qualification is still valid. Remember that health & safety law can change substantially over time. So, for example, having once had a knowledge of (say) the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2007 will be of little use when working with the new CDM 2015 Regulations.

Second, they need to be satisfied that their nominated person has the personal skills and abilities needed to perform the safety management task correctly (and bear in mind that just having a qualification does not in itself guarantee competence!)

Even if the safety management work has been assigned to an external consultant the same checks should still be carried out. Does the appointed consultant actually hold appropriate health & safety qualifications? (Some “consultants” are woefully underqualified for the challenge!) Does the consultant hold a professional membership (which would mean that he – or she – would be governed by that professional body’s code of conduct and ethics)? Does the consultant carry appropriate professional indemnity insurance – and if not, why not?

Delegation is a perfectly acceptable management strategy if it is done properly, of that there is no question, but directors must resist the temptation to delegate their health and safety duties just as a matter of convenience – because therein lies the road to disaster and a personal appearance before one of Her Majesty’s Judges!

About the author:

Andy Farrall Health and SafetyAndy has his own health & safety practice, Management & Safety Training Ltd, and is a highly experienced consultant and trainer (including accreditation with NEBOSH both as a tutor and examiner). He is an accredited accident investigator and is qualified in both the health & safety and training sectors.

A Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (FIIRSM), a chartered safety & health practitioner (CMIOSH) and a member of the UK Occupational Safety & Health Consultants Register (OSHCR), he has a proven track record in fields as diverse as accident investigation, lone worker safety, construction safety, and health & safety training.

Prior to moving into the field of health & safety management he was a specialist investigator with two élite UK law enforcement agencies (including taking responsibility for the management of complex international fraud enquiries).