Employers have both the legal and moral obligation to the people who work for them to provide a safe workplace, and to prioritize their employees’ health and wellbeing. This is called a “duty of care”.
Actual laws around duty of care in the workplace differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general employees must avoid hazards in the workplace including physical ones, as well as bullying and stress.
Failure to observe a duty of care in the workplace can lead to employees becoming injured, or worse, they could die. Your company could also be liable for penalties from government regulators for failing to discharge a duty of care. And employees or their family members who feel that the duty of care has been neglected could sue for damages.
Additionally, your corporate reputation could be damaged: you could lose lots of good employees, be unable to attract great people to work for your organization and your reputation with customers and other stakeholders could be left irreparably damaged.
Internal communication has a very important role to play in helping with duty of care in the workplace. Executed properly, strong internal communications can help you to build a culture of awareness around potential hazards and risks in the workplace, deliver information quickly to your employees when there is an urgent issue and support them to speak up when there are issues to report.
Research from Staffbase found that companies that are effective at delivering safety information to employees can lower workplace accidents and reduce the cost of occupational illnesses and injuries by 31%.
Tips for embedding duty of care in the workplace
For corporate leaders working in the internal communications space, here are some ways that you can embed duty of care in the workplace:
1. Clearly communicate your policies
It’s important that you have policies around workplace health and safety that outlines your obligations with regard to duty of care as an employer, and also what responsibilities individual employees have in ensuring that your workplace is safe.
The policy should be written in plain language so that it is easy for everyone to understand. It should also be easily located by any employee who would like to find it – so think carefully about where it lives in your online filing system or on your intranet site.
2. Ensure managers are consistent and accountable in communication
In larger organizations where there are many people in management roles, many inconsistencies can develop, especially around things like communication and engagement.
One manager may be skilled at it. Another may not. One manager may prioritize it. Another may not. This can have negative outcomes for the business for many reasons, including if you have managers that don’t communicate around safety issues very well which could see your company ultimately fail in its duty of care towards employees.
Set clear expectations for managers around how they should communicate with employees, particularly with regard to health and wellbeing issues. You can give them guidelines about frequency, tone and style to ensure consistency across the organization.
Managers should also be trained and made aware of their own personal role when it comes to duty of care – especially around employees speaking up about hazards.
3. Give employees a voice
Employees are your eyes and ears when it comes to noticing risks and reporting them. Unfortunately, quite often employees feel they can’t speak up or speak out. The reason for this can be because they don’t have the confidence to speak up, or because they fear reprisals from colleagues or managers if they do. This can mean that they remain quiet if they’ve identified a risk that eventually leads to injury or death.
You may not be able to develop an in-house culture that prioritizes safety overnight, but this is something you should aim for – so that employees who want to speak up can feel safe and supported in doing so.
Hold workshops and forums where employees can speak together to talk about safety and identify any issues. Also implement systems that allow individual employees to raise issues and concerns in a confidential manner.
4.Deliver meaningful communication continuously
Workplace safety communication isn’t something you can do once, tick a box, and then say you’ve done it. As part of your duty of care as an employer, you should issue frequent communications to your employees with relevant safety information.
Like any successful communication initiatives, using a variety of tools and channels can assist to reinforce these messages. For example you can create web content, videos, podcasts, meetings, video conferences, blog posts, posters, newsletter content, digital signage displays, face-to-face meetings and corporate social media content where workplace safety is the central theme.
5. Train your staff
Your employees should be familiar with workplace related health and safety from their very first day on the job - it should form part of their onboarding process. Whether they work with hazardous chemicals and need to understand the appropriate handling procedures, or if they’re in an office and need to be familiar with evacuation routes, you should ensure they are provided with the information they need to be safe, and to ensure the safety of others.
It shouldn’t stop at the first day. Workplace health and safety training should be ongoing. Create video content and test your employees’ knowledge. Holding drills and run emergency scenarios. Send hints, tips and reminders to reinforce the training that employees have undertaken.
6. Invest in an emergency alert system
There are many different emergency situations that can befall an organization that are completely out of your hands as an employer… but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a duty of care to alert your employees so they can take appropriate actions to remain safe.
This can include fires, floods, gas leaks, chemical spills, active shooters, acts of terrorism, earthquakes, hurricanes, severe storms, tsunamis and other natural disasters.
With an emergency notification system you can let all affected employees quickly know about the situation and provide them with information on what they should do, for example evacuate or shelter in place.
7. Hold workplace health and safety events for employees
Workplace health and safety is a serious topic, but many employees might find it boring. Having events in the workplace around health and safety issues can make the topic more fun and engaging.
Catered events in work time can be a good way to break the ice and get people to talk about mental health, stress, physical hazards and so on, to understand what supports are available and know where to go and what to do if they identify a risk.
Strengthening safety communication within your workplace is one of the most positive steps you can take in your duty of care as an employer, with plenty to be gained. By giving your people the skills and support they need to identify and report risks and to understand what to do when there is an incident or an emergency, you will see positive results.