Health and safety compliance: what you need to know

Health and safety compliance has risen to the top of many universities’ to-do lists, not least with the events of the past year. How can your university ensure it’s ticking all the right boxes – and keeping everyone safe across campus? The award-winning Salisbury Group, which works with several universities, can help

Compliance has become a topic of immense importance across the higher education landscape – and never more so than during the past year, with the coronavirus pandemic ushering in a spate of additional legislation aimed specifically at ensuring Covid safety for staff and students all across campus.

But the need for compliance – both with government and industry-specific regulations, and/or with a sector or company’s own demands – go far beyond this particular pandemic landscape. The truth is that university campuses, like many other large and multi-faceted spaces, have myriad health and safety obligations – from ensuring that staff and students can move safely around campus, to making sure that they are safe working with particular equipment, and – of course – verifying that buildings across campus meet current fire safety regulations.

This all adds up to a considerable challenge for health and safety and estates teams. Thankfully, award-winning facilities services Salisbury Group are on hand to provide a complete advice and maintenance package across any university estate.

Creating a compliance culture

“Universities are complex spaces, and risk is everywhere,” confirms Andrew Lunt, group managing director at Salisbury Group. “Compliance with legislation and codes of conduct is absolutely key to avoiding disasters across campus, not to mention ensuring the ongoing welfare of staff and students alike.”

Non-compliance can have devastating effects: injury, illness, penalties, litigation, reputational damage. “The worst-case scenario here is clearly causing harm to someone, be they staff, student or visitor, through a compliance issue on campus,” Andrew continues. “A good bottom line here is that, ethically, every organisation should aim to send their staff and visitors home safe every night.”

So, how should universities begin to tackle this complex set of interrelated challenges? “Perhaps most importantly, you need to create a framework, a culture, that will engage staff and get their buy-in into the safe, compliant campus you (and they) need,” Andrew recommends. “Work together with your staff, and find out what they need in order to understand and achieve compliance. Do they know their responsibilities? Do they know who to go to in the event of a compliance issue?

“For us at Salisbury, the best way into ensuring full compliance, and obtaining full understanding and buy-in from everyone across campus, is to institute a genuine safety culture. Safety at work should be on everyone’s minds, every day. That way, you can all see what needs to be done and, as a result, you keep your maintenance costs controllable and visible.”

So, how to enact this ‘safety culture’ across campus? Drilling down a little into the risk landscape, you should take care to understand the various risks that employees and visitors face across the site, and what worst-case scenarios and sanctions apply in each case. Next, think about the procedures, risk assessments, management arrangements and the training that will be needed to mitigate risk and to keep everyone compliant.

Staying in the loop

As well as drawing up their own safety framework, estates offices and compliance departments must, of course, keep abreast of current legislation. You can find useful guidance on compliance from the Office for Students and the Health and Safety Executive.

Another easy way to stay in the loop is to subscribe to a legislation update service, such as Barbour Environment, Health and Safety or the NQA’s legal updates. Regardless, your organisation should have a dedicated health and safety professional to keep across all changes in legislation. Facilities management teams will also regularly update training and safety protocols, which contributes to their Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

Every university should also have its own health and safety policy, going over and above the base legal requirements. On top of that, each particular department may have its own individual polices – for example, there will be some stringent rules around laboratory work. “Familiarity with these rules should be part of the induction process for new staff,” Andrew urges. “Reinforce this with training and staff communications – such as weekly emails and/or case studies – so that no one on site has any reason not to know about the expectations and the resources available.”

Ethically, every organisation should aim to send their staff and visitors home safe every night

Reporting and rewarding

Of course, when it comes to compliance across a large, multi-use campus, as likely as not your to-do list will be a long one. How to prioritise? In essence, you should ask yourself: ‘so what?’ What are the possible consequences, in each case, of inaction? What is the worst outcome – regulatory, reputational, or worst of all, human – that could result from not addressing the problem? Fire issues in a student block will be much higher up your to-do list than the winter gritting service.

Try and foster a ‘don’t walk by’ culture. This cuts both ways: of course it means ‘don’t ignore health and safety lapses, but fix the problem and record how you have done so’; but it also means, ‘highlight and reward good behaviour’.

“We have a monthly Safety Award at Salisbury, which has proved a real motivation for staff,” Andrew notes. “You’re not wanting to create a culture of fear, where staff are afraid to tell on colleagues – rather, you are all in this together, creating a positive culture of safety.

“A healthy organisation will record near misses – those times where things could have been more serious than they were – and learn from these. Find out what happened, so it doesn’t happen again. And be clear with staff that no discipline will be involved, so that they feel safe in reporting.”

Asset registers

It’s also important to ensure that you and your colleagues are aware of the extent of your assets. It can be a big job for estates teams, especially those relatively new to the role, to keep abreast of all the hugely varied equipment on site, and all of its servicing needs.

“Technology can help here. Create a comprehensive asset register, where you record all the assets in the building and, when they are due for servicing,” Andrew recommends. “Compare compliance regimes for all the assets, have the appropriate maintenance schedules easily accessible, and keep records of any remedials necessary.”

Of course, when it comes to these assets, you’ll find that compliance is often not merely an internal concern, but needs to be reached collaboratively with your suppliers (for example, providers of specialist services such as lift maintenance). It makes sense, therefore, to build fruitful partnerships with those suppliers. “Get to know your suppliers’ own track records in managing compliance,” Andrew advises. “Do they have a culture of openness around all the risks and procedures involved?”

Working with regulators

So, let’s imagine that one day the regulatory agency comes calling. How can you achieve a good outcome?

“Be positive and cooperative, not defensive, from the start,” Andrew recommends. “Remember that you and the regulator both have the same aim: to make your environment as safe and compliant as possible.

“Often, people’s natural reaction is to be defensive and explain that everything is fine. Far better, though, to acknowledge areas for improvement – which there will be!
“Work out a plan with the agency: discuss together how you’ll get to where you need to be. When they see that you are open to improvement, they are much more likely to step in and give you the benefit of their own experience.”

Staying in the loop

Finally, don’t forget that good safety and wellbeing is a hugely important – and marketable – asset.

Over the past decade, factors such as quality of buildings, and the general living environment, have become far more central in students’ decisions about where to apply. What’s more, there is a clear link between high-quality buildings and excellent educational outcomes.

So, if you’re managing to achieve good safety and compliance, shout it from the rooftops!

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