The concept of heath and safety in the workplace is sometimes the butt of jokes, but the reality is no laughing matter. Becoming aware that there are inadequate or inappropriate systems in place, or that a colleague is performing dangerously below par, can raise mixed feelings and a nagging sense of responsibility – should I bring this to someone’s attention? What if someone gets the sack as a result? What if it’s me that gets the sack? Can I be confident that my involvement will be kept confidential? Should I just look away and mind my own business? Do I have a legal and/or moral duty to act? How would I feel if there is a terrible accident or injury that I might have helped to prevent?
Depending on the type of work environment, the risks and repercussions can be relatively minor and easily rectified; perhaps a quiet word with the person concerned, a supervisor or the HR department will do the trick. However, when your work involves looking after other people, the stakes can be very high indeed, up to and including a matter of life and death. The airline industry has grasped the nettle and works hard to encourage an atmosphere of open, no-fault reporting amongst its staff, developing an ethos where owning up to mistakes, rather than covering them up, leads to improved systems, performance and ultimately safer conditions for public and employees alike.
For medical staff and other care providers who have the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people in their hands day in, day out, the consequences of poor practice can be life-altering, even fatal, for patients and equally devastating for the employees involved. In his speech to the Global Safety Patient Summit on 3 March 2016 entitled “From a blame culture to a learning culture” Jeremy Hunt MP openly acknowledged the sobering fact that “Every year an estimated 1 million patients die in hospitals across the world because of avoidable clinical mistakes.” https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/from-a-blame-culture-to-a-learning-culture
So how can we move from a blame culture to a learning culture? The UK Government’s website offers the following advice for raising serious concerns at work: https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing/what-is-a-whistleblower
- You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something you’ve seen at work – though not always.
- The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, eg the general public.
- As a whistleblower you’re protected by law – you shouldn’t be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’. (You are protected by law if you’re a worker, for example an NHS employee, trainee such as a student nurse or agency worker.)
- You can raise your concern at any time about an incident that happened in the past, is happening now, or you believe will happen in the near future.
- A confidentiality clause or ‘gagging clause’ in a settlement agreement isn’t valid if you’re a whistleblower.
However the decision to blow the whistle on perceived malpractice is not one to be taken lightly. Challenging the status quo can have unforeseen, long-lasting and potentially damaging consequences for the person who points the finger. The following organisations are just some of those offering guidance and support if this is something you are seriously considering:
Whistleblowers UK: http://www.wbuk.org/
Compassion in Care: http://compassionincare.com/
National Whistleblowing Advocacy Service: http://www.whistleblower.co.uk/
The NHS Employers website http://www.nhsemployers.org/ provides details on raising concerns at work, including the Whistleblowing Helpline: 08000 724 725 8am – 6pm Monday to Friday:
“The national Whistleblowing Helpline provides free, independent and confidential advice to all staff and contracted workers within health and social care. While the helpline cannot investigate concerns on behalf of individuals, it can provide invaluable advice on whether your concern is indeed whistleblowing and to talk you through the process to ensure it is followed correctly. They are also able to advise on how you can escalate the concern with a relevant prescribed body if needed. To speak to a helpline advisor An answer machine and ring-back service is available for calls outside of these times.”
So prevention must surely be better than cure, however when things do go wrong and a claim for medical negligence is made, a spotlight can be shone in dark corners where significant problems need to be addressed. It seems that lawyers who specialise in clinical negligence and personal injury claims are often portrayed in the media as “the bad guys”. We’ve all heard the expressions “ambulance chasers”, “bleeding the NHS dry”, accompanied by accusations of helping the greedy minority to benefit at the expense of the tax-paying majority. When news breaks of a (rare) multi-million pound settlement, it is usually closely followed by comments that “you could build 3 new hospitals for that”. However the painstaking work of medico-legal specialists and the independent experts they instruct, maintains essential checks and balances, can help to identify how and why things go wrong and increase the chances that changes will be made to minimise similar failings in future.
If you have a query about whistleblowing at work please contact Martin Williams or Samantha Dickinson on 01273 223252.
If you are thinking about making a claim in relation to negligence that you or a family member have suffered and you would like further advice, please contact a member of the Medical Negligence Team at Mayo Wynne Baxter on 0800 84 94 101.