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Know your health and safety obligations

02 June 2010

The hospitality industry must not get complacent about health and safety regulations. Mark Harrington, chief executive at Check Safety First, explains how to increase the quality of your product, reduce the risk of prosecution, and do wonders for the reputation of your establishment.

Ask anyone working in UK hospitality how they measure the success of their establishment and customer satisfaction will be top of the list. Ask the same people what contributes to achieving this, and health and safety is unlikely to get a mention. Yet in an independent survey of more than 2,000 consumers, nearly 90% said they would not return to a hotel where they had contracted an illness or had an accident.

A combination of complacency, inconsistently applied legislation and concerns over cost means that the UK hospitality industry is lagging behind many of the popular tourist destinations in Europe, putting both guests and operators' professional reputations in danger.

Hoteliers - and other hospitality operators - must put their houses in order, before it is too late.

WHY DON'T WE TAKE HEALTH AND SAFETY SERIOUSLY?

Many in the industry take risks when it comes to health and safety simply because they have no real knowledge of their legal obligations in the event of a guest suffering injury or contracting a food-related infection as a result of poor hygiene standards. The latest corporate manslaughter and homicide laws put the responsibility firmly with senior hotel directors, but many have failed to grasp this.

Some quarters of the industry believe it is easier to deal with the consequences of a health and safety breach or a food poisoning incident after it has happened, rather than proactively strive to stop it happening in the first place.

But an "it won't happen to me" attitude coupled with ignorance of current legislation no longer constitutes a legal defence. For this reason alone, the responsibility must lie with operators to ensure they maintain high health and safety standards.

Cost is another contributing factor. The current perception by many UK hoteliers is that implementing a rigorous health and safety system is a cost to the business rather than an investment in improving the quality of service, attracting visitors and securing repeat visits. The truth is that it can cost less than a hotel spends on complimentary toiletries.

COMMON PITFALLS

Based on our work with more than 1,500 international hotels, the top health and safety issues are based around the kitchen. The main offender is substandard kitchen design, where hoteliers fail to take the flow of food into consideration.

It is important that every stage in the cooking process makes sense. For example, having the point of food delivery adjacent to the point of disposal may increase the chance of bugs spreading.

Other problem areas include food not being stored at correct temperatures, poor facilities for washing and disinfecting food and equipment, and a lack of staff hygiene amenities. All of these factors add up to a breeding ground for germs and a food poisoning outbreak just waiting to happen.

When you consider that a single health and safety breach could signal the end of a previously well-regarded brand reputation, ignoring the importance of hygiene is a dangerous game to play.

Take two recent high-profile examples of cleanliness failings. KFC was ordered to pay £19,000 in fines after cockroaches, a mouse, flies and dried chicken blood were found on the floor of one of the chain's busiest branches in central London.

At the other end of the spectrum, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant was at the centre of a media scandal last year, when more than 500 guests contracted food poisoning. In its report into the incident, the Health Protection Agency concluded that diners were infected by the norovirus bug, which is thought to have been brought into the restaurant through contaminated shellfish. Inspectors criticised food safety standards in the kitchens.

IMPACT OF INVESTMENT

If you want to see the impact that investment in health and safety has on reputation, occupancy rates and repeat business you need only look at popular European holiday destinations for UK tourists.

Over the past few years many of these countries have invested in systems and processes that regularly monitor key health and safety hotspots - such as kitchens, pools and bathrooms - and tougher legislation to ensure that standards are improved and maintained. These countries recognised early on that their livelihoods rely on repeat business and the only way to achieve this is to improve the quality of their services.

The UK hospitality industry is currently at a crossroads - the economic downturn has encouraged more home-grown tourists, while the weakness of the pound is resulting in more foreign visitors.

Hoteliers must seize the opportunity and build on this foundation to continue to grow. Ask yourself this - can you afford to miss out on the opportunity because you didn't take the health and safety of your guests seriously?

10 WAYS TO REDUCE HEALTH AND SAFETY RISK AT YOUR PREMISES

1.Understand the consequences - a significant number of hoteliers are oblivious to the sort of problems that can occur. Having at least a basic understanding of the sort of safety issues that can impact a hotel is the first and most important step.

2.Create a competent team - whether this is just one person or a team of people from across the business, it is vital that they have the skills, knowledge, attitude and awareness to identify and manage risks properly.

3.Call in the experts - look for experts that can develop the knowledge base within the team and manage functions the team is either too busy or not experienced enough to deal with.

4.Create a clearly defined risk management system - this should not only document all the risks that have been identified, but also detail who is responsible for dealing with them and how they will be monitored.

5.Educate - train as many people as possible (particularly the key personnel) in risk awareness and reduction.

6.Monitor - make sure that the risk management system you have developed involves obvious checkpoints that are recorded and easily identifiable when absent.

7.Evaluate - regularly review the risk management system to ensure that it is getting the desired results.

8.Change - the hotel industry is particularly dynamic, so it is important to ensure that the risk management system changes in line with the business.

9.Tap into the knowledge base - the problems that one hotel is experiencing will be similar to those of other establishments. Sharing your knowledge by communicating with hotel associations and groups can build a vital source of intelligence.

10.A safe guest experience is a good guest experience - understand that poor food hygiene practices, which could result in food poisoning, will deter future guests.

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