Letter from London
For instance, at many U.S. firms, compliance efforts are financially motivated and workers' compensation expenses make it relatively easy for safety and health professionals to demonstrate the financial rewards of reducing injuries.
But health and safety pros in the U.K. are hindered by their employees' reluctance to report job injuries. British workers are embarrassed about workplace injuries and, unless time off is necessary, they don't report them.
The fact that a national health system provides injured workers primary care contributes to the safety pro's dilemma. Medical coverage is not obtained through the employer, so there is no reason to report an injury at work, other than to help the safety and health officer. U.K. employers don't have the threat of workers' compensation premiums as incentive to maintain safe workplaces like American employers do.
In the States, health and safety professionals have feared safe workplace incentives would be eliminated if job injury treatment came under a national health plan. Britain's system could make a good case study for examining the potential impact on U.S. workplaces.
Sticklers for complianceOne cultural difference, however, might make conditions poor for comparison. In the U.K., companies are more likely to follow rules simply because they are rules. I have found the stereotype of the conservative and proper Englishman to be fairly accurate. When it comes to following rules, you can forget about flexibility here. Getting dispensations from a particular piece of legislation is out of the question. If there is a rule, you follow it. If there is a health or safety regulation, you comply. As a people steeped in history and set in their ways, the British are unwavering. So despite a lack of strong economic incentive for preventing injuries, rules are followed.
Unlike U.S. employers who would never admit a problem to OSHA...employers in the U.K. frequently call their local HSE inspector for advice.
Britain's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) -a distant cousin to OSHA-is responsible for creating and enforcing legislation in the U.K. In many ways, the HSE operates the way Republican reformers in the U.S. Congress would like to see OSHA operate. For instance, employers here consider the HSE an ally. Unlike U.S. employers who would never admit a problem to OSHA, or would only call anonymously in fear of inviting an OSHA inspection, employers in the U.K. frequently call their local HSE inspector for advice.
A local HSE officer, often known as a factory inspector, is much less likely to issue a citation for a first violation. Instead, inspectors offer their assistance and possibly a warning. And when fines are issued, they tend to be much smaller than those we see in the States.
Similar to a lot of their American counterparts, many British employers are committed to safety only for the sake of compliance. Rarely will a company here take proactive measures. Instead, they stick with what's worked in the past. Forward thinking programs in the States such as behavioral safety, employee work teams, and workplace exercise programs, are a long way off for most British workers. Stress management is just beginning to surface, but it will be some time before it is accepted.
In fact, change is extremely slow. In general, everything except the mail here operates at a much slower pace. This is not a world of "get it done today" and phonemail systems, which can be frustrating to the American newcomer. Answering machines are scorned here and even the largest of companies rarely use them. More business is conducted by letter. Indeed, a letter usually precedes initial phone contact, so the communication process is always a few days behind the pace of the States'.
Social surprisesAs an employee of a consulting firm, I have had several other cultural surprises. For example, I have learned that it is improper to refer to your own work or products as "excellent." In fact, using superlatives is considered brash.
The theme running through daily life is proper, proper, proper. Don't call before writing. Don't write before having your letter proofread several times (possibly by someone very high on the corporate ladder). Don't do business until you know your counterpart quite well. Don't be pushy. Don't be too personal. On the other hand, expect job advertisements that specify an age range and interview questions about marital status and family plans.
Many of my cultural experiences here would have occurred whether or not I had worked in the health and safety field. The great importance of status and class structure, the lack of discrimination laws, and the slower pace are prevalent in daily life as well as in the workplace. For anyone considering working in health and safety in Britain, I suggest slowing down, being patient, and taking some time for a nice cup of tea.