To mark World Day for Safety and Health at Work this week (28 April), Andrew Harrison says that being able to prove competency around health and safety is essential and urges the wider industry to support ESSA’s calls for standards and regulation in this area.

Competency is a word that crops up regularly in health and safety guidance and legislation. But what does it mean and how do we define competency regarding health and safety in the exhibitions sector?

The government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines competence as the combination of training, skills, experience, and knowledge to undertake responsibilities and perform activities safely.

Driving and maintaining high standards is a core objective for ESSA and the reason we launched ESSA Accredited – an independent annual audit carried out on our supplier and service provider members, which measures them against stringent health and safety criteria and helps them to meet their minimum legal obligation when operating in the industry.

Standards matter, not only to protect those who work within the industry and the visitors attending our exhibitions, but also to provide demonstrable proof of competency,

an often-misunderstood word in our industry in terms of what it means to all stakeholders and their own legal obligations.

Shared responsibility

ESSA Accredited only applies to companies operating in the supplier sector of the industry, but the onus shouldn’t just be on suppliers. Under HSE legislation, everyone across an event lifecycle from venues, organisers, suppliers and exhibitors has a responsibility to understand what competency means to them and ensure that professional standards are maintained.

It's not enough to have just one part of the industry driving this. We need industry-wide standards and regulation to improve competency across the board to ensure a safe and healthy future for the exhibitions industry.

We currently rely heavily on the assumption that individual companies adhere to HSE legislation and train their staff accordingly, but that’s a rather dangerous assumption to make, especially when interpretations of what competency may mean to individuals can vary. One problem we all currently face is that when something goes wrong, who is accountable in the absence of a clear set of defined industry-wide standards? If we each can’t prove our competency in the way that legislation would require, doesn’t that leave us all rather exposed?

I believe we would all significantly benefit from a collective and ongoing conversation around what each stake holder’s responsibility is, what competency is, how we measure it and how we regulate it. I think reluctance to commit more time to this topic will vary from person to person.  And regulation can be scary, especially when as an industry we’re already facing numerous challenges from short lead times and increased cost pressures to resource and staffing issues. So, the thought of a new set of rules to adhere to may understandably not be welcomed by all.

Regulation can be positive

These are all challenges that could, if we’re not careful, have a negative impact on quality and competency, which is all the more reason why we need standards. Regulation can be a hugely positive thing. It helps professionalise industries, raise standards, improve skills, training and cooperation, and enables companies and their employees to operate safely.

We're not talking about over regulation here. Let’s not forget the fact that in the broad sense, our industry is largely unregulated. Pretty much anyone could set up a company tomorrow and start selling exhibition stands and building them on an exhibition site, which under HSE regulation is considered a construction site. While there is legislation in place, there is no real regulation around it, and no-one policing it, specifically in this industry, and it’s therefore an area in which we are all leaving ourselves exposed.

Regulation creates a level playing field so that everyone within the sector can compete on a fair basis because they operate to similar standards. It also provides those who don’t meet these standards two options; improve or don’t operate in the industry. This will undoubtedly help to weed out those businesses who aren't working to professional standards and might be endangering those around them.

At this point, it’s important to reiterate the fact that our industry is safe. We operate safely and under incredibly tight time constraints to build amazing shows. This isn’t us whingeing or pointing fingers at any single group – we all have a role to play in bringing an event to life and understanding and demonstrating competency is a shared responsibility and no single one of us can do this alone. So instead, what we are suggesting is the creation of a shared voice on the subject to remove any outstanding grey areas which can be open to interpretation or ambiguity. Ultimately, we want to make our industry as safe as possible, but for that to happen, it requires a united front across the whole industry.  

Leading the charge

At ESSA we provide consultancy and lead and push our members to be the best they can be, with health and safety as the driver. And with ESSA Accredited, we have created a solution, a framework which allows suppliers to move towards proving regulation competency, and not just as a one-off, but continually, because they are audited annually.

My rallying call is to challenge the rest of the industry to engage in a conversation around defining what competency means, and then work together on a solution for demonstrating, measuring and proving our competency so that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I realise that initially, there is a risk that these conversations may generate more questions than answers, but let’s not be deterred from making a start. 

So, who’s in?

Published in Exhibiton News on 27 April 2023


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The Event Supplier and Services Association (ESSA) is a trade body representing the very best contractors and suppliers of goods and services to the UK’s thriving events industry.

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