Risk management strategy tackles health and safety problems

‘SOBANE’ is a health and safety risk management methodology created by a team at the Catholic University of Louvain and promoted by the Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue. The method has recently been updated and broadened with new applications in a range of economic sectors. The SOBANE strategy involves the active participation of staff in screening for potential safety risks and finding solutions.

In accordance with the European health and safety directive, Council Directive 89/391/EEC, Belgian employers are responsible for the prevention of health and safety risks. The SOBANE (Screening, Observation, Analysis, Expertise) strategy is a participative risk management methodology developed to prevent and address problems, which frequently arise when companies are implementing these kinds of prevention strategies. Such problems generally relate to terminology, risk estimation and coordination.

Basic principles

The basic approach of the SOBANE strategy is that, with the help of participative methods and screening lists, health and safety problems are tackled in a process comprising four possible steps. At the start, these stages mainly involve the workers and their internal coach (the level of screening), and by the end they move on to detailed research and investigation by external experts (the level of expertise).

More specifically, the four levels are:

  • screening – the workers and their management detect the risk factors, and implement obvious solutions;
  • observation – each of the remaining problems are examined in more detail, and the reasons and solutions are discussed;
  • analysis – when necessary, an occupational health (OH) practitioner is asked to carry out appropriate measurements to develop specific solutions;
  • expertise – in complex and rare cases, the assistance of an expert is called on to solve a particular problem.
The four levels of the SOBANE strategy
This table outlines the characteristics of the four SOBANE levels, incorporating screening, observation, analysis and expertise.
. Level 1 Screening Level 2 Observation Level 3 Analysis Level 4 Expertise
When? All cases If a problem In difficult cases In complex cases
How? Simple observations Qualitative observations Quantitative observations Specialised measurements
Time cost? Very low (10 minutes per factor) Low (2 hours) Average (2 days) High (2 weeks)
By whom? Company personnel Company personnel Company personnel OH practitioners Company personnel OH practitioners experts
Knowledge of actual work situation Very high High Average Low
Health and safety knowledge Low Average High Specialised

Source: www.sobane.be

The method is based on two main principles, as outlined below.

  • Many of the health and safety problems and risks arising can be prevented using solutions devised by the workers themselves. They do not require time-consuming, complex methods available through external consultants.
  • This ‘bottom-up’ problem solving has to be organised in a structured and formalised way, and cannot be left to personal initiative or spontaneous reactions. It is therefore necessary to develop screening and observation tools for the people on the shop floor which enhance the complementary aspects of the various health and safety actors involved. The latter include the workers, employers, health and safety committee, internal health and safety coordinator, and an external bureau specialising in health and safety prevention.

The creators of the method are based mainly at the Hygiene and Work Physiology Unit (Unité Hygiène et Physiologie du Travail) of the French-speaking Catholic University of Louvain (Université Catholique de Louvain, UCL). They see the following advantages of applying the method:

  • the measures are practical because they are developed by the workers involved;
  • the measures are more legitimised and more accepted by the people who have to implement them;
  • risks are weighted and as a result a risk management plan can be developed which first tackles the priority problems.

As a result, the proponents of the method claim that the SOBANE strategy makes risk prevention faster, more cost effective and more efficient in coordinating the contributions of the different actors.

Recent applications and extensions

A strategy for the participatory screening of the risks has been developed, known as Déparis (100Kb PDF); this pertains to the first SOBANE level. Methods for the observation, analysis and expertise levels were also developed and validated with regard to noise, the thermal environment, lighting, whole-body vibration, hand/arm vibration and musculoskeletal constraints. Specific methods for the observation and analysis levels were developed in the context of a European research project for the following health and safety aspects: chemical agents; biological agents; safety, for example falls or slips; fire and explosion hazards; electrical safety; and safety with machines. Recently, special applications have been developed for particular sectors of economic activity and occupations, for example, for homecare workers.

An example of good practice in employing the method may be found at the site of the global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in the town of Wavre, north of Louvain. The company plans to expand its use of the SOBANE strategy throughout its plants worldwide.

An up-to-date report (in Dutch, 1.2Mb PDF), compiled by the main developer of the methodology, Jacques Malchaire, explains the strategy. The report is published by the Directorate-General Humanisation of Work of the Belgian Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue (Service public fédéral Emploi, Travail et Concertation sociale/Federale Overheidsdienst Werkgelegenheid, Arbeid en Sociaal Overleg).

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven

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