New starters are more likely to have an accident at work – but you can help to keep them safe

According to Health and Safety Executive statistics, workers are as likely to have an accident in the first six months of starting a new job as they are during the whole of the rest of their working life.

The extra risk arises due to:

  • lack of experience of working in a new industry or workplace
  • lack of familiarity with the job and the work environment
  • reluctance to raise concerns – or not knowing how to
  • eagerness to impress workmates and managers.

This means workers new to a site:

  • may not recognise hazards as a potential source of danger
  • may not understand 'obvious' rules for use of equipment
  • may be unfamiliar with site layout – especially where site hazards may change from day to day
  • may ignore warning signs and rules, or cut corners.

To identify how we can tailor our induction and probationary periods to reduce this risk, we need to have a better understanding of what is going on for the worker.

We use most of our brain power, most of the time, even when we are at home in familiar surroundings doing routine tasks.

Neuroscientists estimate that as much as 80% of our daily thinking and behaviour is based on habit rather than conscious control.

This means that if we’re doing something new, not based on habit, it absorbs a lot of brain power and concentration.

Brains are like smart phones

We can think of our brains as being like a laptop or smart phone – they have a finite amount of processing power at any given time.

When we are doing something new, which uses a lot of our intellectual capacity, our ability to consider other factors or competing tasks is reduced.

To demonstrate this principle, try walking while counting down from 1,000 by sevens (1,000, 993, 986, etc.). You will soon stop walking.

Why? Your brain has to work so hard to do the maths that it doesn't have enough resources left to tell your legs to put one foot in front of the other.

Think back to your first day in your current job: the people, the environment and the methods of working were unknown.

Some aspects of the work might have been familiar to you, but you were still having to learn people’s names, find your way around, familiarise yourself with policies and procedures, learn new passwords and use unfamiliar tools and resources.

Everything was new. Nothing came from habit.  

With this in mind, we can start to understand why the first weeks in a new job might present safety risks, and why a new worker might struggle to assess and avoid risks that become more easily dealt with when their job and soundings have become familiar and routine.

What can we do to protect new starters at this critical time?

Consider their general capability, for example:

  • literacy and numeracy levels
  • understanding of written and spoken English
  • general health
  • relevant work experience
  • age and maturity
  • physical capability to do the job
  • familiarity with the work being done and the working environment

Provide an induction

Plan it carefully, taking into account their capability, as above. You may need to use visual, non-verbal methods such as pictures, signs or learning materials such as videos, DVDs or CD-ROMs.

Include photos of hazards where possible, and use plain, simple language. Take time to walk around the workplace or site with new workers and show them where the main hazards are, such as falls, slips or transport.

Assess your expectation and adjust as required

Take into account the fact that, for the new starter, nothing is habit or done without mental application yet.

They are having to use their mental capacity to member your name, where their workstation is, and aspects of work which you have long since stopped having to think about.

Once the new environment starts to become familiar, habits will form – which require less intellectual capacity. They will then be able to apply more of the skills and knowledge you hired them for. Sometimes we just need a little patience.

Use control measures

Make sure the control measures to protect against risk are up to date and are being properly used and maintained:

  • Involve current employees in discussions about the risk, and how they felt when they started. Did they have any accidents or near misses? What did they struggled with at first, and what might have helped them?
  • Consider how you stage your individual induction plans and, if there are some activities or environments which pose a greater risk, try to delay the worker’s involvement in these activities, to allow other aspects of work to become more familiar in the meantime. This will ensure they have a greater intellectual capacity to perceive and anticipate risk factors.
  • Make any necessary arrangements for health surveillance.
  • If required, make sure suitable personal protective equipment is provided from day one.

Provide adequate supervision

Ensure that new starters know how to raise concerns and supervisors are familiar with possible problems, due to unfamiliarity and inexperience.

Consider appointing a buddy who will accompany the new starter around the site for the first few days or weeks.

Make sure information is understood

Check workers have received and understood the information, instruction and training they need to work safely, especially during the vital first days or weeks at work.

Try to consider how much information an individual could possibly take in and process in any one day and don’t overload them.

For help and advice with new starters, or other employment law matters, get in touch.