21st Century OSH: what does it take in 2017?

Health and safety professionals are middle aged men with clipboards and elbow pads, with a love for spoiling parties and a joy for banning conkers, right? Wrong! Lauren Applebey looks at what will make the OSH professionals of the future.

The 21st Century OSH-er is a good communicator, a leader, a visionary, and a researcher who understands the needs of the board, as well as of the worker on the shop floor. The 21st Century health and safety person in the office is not the geek from HR who has been handed an extra job role. They are people who have studied hard to bring change, ensure wellbeing, and create sound cultures by influencing leaders and strengthening teams. And do it all within budget and time constraints.

This modern health and safety professional may support a colleague with mental ill health in the morning, while looking at new technologies to minimise risks for those working at height in the afternoon. All with a sprinkling of training, and a dash of risk assessments in between.

The health and safety professional of 2017 is (slowly) diversifying, as more minorities enter the profession. Women are filling some of the top roles, ethnic minorities are representing a larger proportion of roles than in the past and millennials are bringing a fresh view to some outdated practices.

There is still a long way to go, but change is afoot.

Technology is having more of an impact than ever before on the way things are done day-to-day. It has changed the way that health and safety information is communicated, recorded and reviewed.

Drones and robots can now act as investigative tools. In some roles where the risk cannot be mitigated, it eliminates the need for humans to carry out high risk work at all.

21st Century OSH is a great place to be, but it’s changing fast. So, what does the 21st Century health and professional really look like and what does the future hold?

The 21st Century health and safety person has studied hard to bring change, ensure wellbeing, and to create sound cultures by influencing leaders and strengthening teams.

Education, education, education…

There are many ways people find themselves as a slave to the health and safety gods. For some, it is something they’ve always wanted to do and they follow a degree that leads them there.

For many, their career in health and safety began as something else: an engineer, a builder or something completely different. And, for some, health and safety represents a development of a role which began as the office safety person. And it now spans a very different range of disciplines.

Whichever route – education, training and competency comes with the territory. And this doesn’t end the day a certificate is handed out. Or the moment a course is completed. Training and retraining, sharing best practice, and learning from others is continuous in the limitless world of occupational health and safety.

Technical knowledge is relatively easy to teach and digest. Skills are much more difficult to learn, perhaps even more so for more seasoned professionals that have been exposed to a more old-school approach to safety management. – Iain Evans, NCRQ

And now, it is also very exciting. Most courses are no longer just classroom based, they are practical and engaging.

For example, the Epic induction training offered by Tideway to their workers. This involves employees spending a day in the life of a worker who dies in an accident at work. They see the fallout of the next 20 years before their eyes.

National Compliance and Risk Qualification, NCRQ, was formed to address the lack of competence of a large number of seemingly “qualified” health and safety practitioners. The company says an effective safety practitioner is one that can apply legal duties to any workplace scenario from basic principles, can independently undertake research on topics beyond their knowledge, can confidently determine suitable and sufficient risk control measures that are sensible and proportionate to the risks, and can then justify any additional costs to senior management.

The aim, NCRQ says, is to learn for yourself with no more exams and textbooks, but progressively through real case studies.

Weird and wonderful jobs of OSH – from zoo safety, to working on the Fast and Furious films, to the high wires of Go Ape – there are many strange jobs in safety.

Iain Evans, NCRQ, says “I was recently asked by a health and safety recruiter to give examples of questions that can be asked to distinguish mediocre safety professionals from excellent ones. One of my responses was to ask “What would happen if you simply stopped going to work? When would someone notice? What would happen to health and safety standards?

“The indispensable safety practitioner may not necessarily be the most effective; many not be the one with the skills to deliver resilient, sustainable and effective health and safety management arrangements.

“Health and safety management should be embedded in an organisation, part of normal business processes. Everybody should be responsible for health and safety management, and they should be able to cope when faced with situations outside the norm.  The most effective safety management systems may well be those that have been developed and implemented so that they can function with minimal – if any – input from a dedicated safety professional/practitioner.

“In order to develop and implement such arrangements, safety practitioners need a wide variety of skills – much more than just technical knowledge. They need to be able to take a real risk-based approach to health and safety; with the skills, knowledge, experience and confidence to focus attention on the areas of actual risk of significant harm, not simply tick box compliance.”

Compliance and culture

The 21st Century OSH professional is no longer a role for people who are just focused on compliance. Compliance is still crucial, risk assessments and regulations are far from redundant – but it’s the way in which we get people to relate to those things that is changing.

We can no longer simply tell people that they have to do things safely, that they need to follow the rules, read the signs and tick the box. We have to understand the people that work for us, what matters to them and how we can make them feel valued and important.

To get people to understand the importance of a risk assessment, to get workers on board with planning and supervision and to encourage them not see health and safety as an obstacle, but an enabler, we have to change cultures – we have to communicate – we have to listen.

And, this communication starts from the first day they enter the workplace and from the examples we set. It comes from seeing others around them using the right language and following the procedures that are there for good reason. It comes from them feeling valued and valuing their own safety – and maybe even more importantly their own health.

David Cant, Director at Veritas Consulting says: “One of the keys as a OSH professional is how to develop listening skills, effective communication is understanding what motivates your employees. What makes them tick? What do they like and dislike? What has worked in the past? It’s not a one-way street, having the skill to know your audience is as important as the way you communicate, be this verbally or actions – it’s sub-consciously recognising those skills on how to make the connection with individuals that counts.

“Ultimately it is your ability to tailor the way in which information is shared that will determine whether your communication skills are effective or not. Remember, you may be leading but it’s not about you – your colleagues’ preferences are the key factor in an effective exchange in communicating information of which indeed, most professionals do find challenging.”

NCRQ’s Iain Evans continues: “Effective, sustainable and resilient health and safety management systems need professionals with a moderately in-depth understanding of business and psychology. Being able to take sound, evidence-based decisions in relation to risk, to influence people with a variety of (often competing) motives, and to teach others how to effectively manage risk, are some of the attributes of more effective safety professionals.

“There are many safety professionals that already have these skills and use them very well.  Sometimes because it comes naturally to them, some will have picked them up with experience, or because they have recognised their importance and consciously made an effort to develop these skills.”

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Whispering health and shouting safety

As all of us in health and safety know: for too long we have whispered health and shouted safety.

This is changing within the profession. But for those ripples to take effect in our offices, construction sites, farms, businesses and other workplaces we have to show our workforces the importance of health.

Last year in Great Britain there were 1.3 million people suffering from a work-related illness. 30.4 million working days were lost due to work-related illness and workplace injury at an estimated cost of £14.1 billion.

13,000 deaths each year are attributed to workplace ill health and in 2015 there were 2,542 mesothelioma deaths due to past asbestos exposures. In 2016 there were over half a million people suffering from stress, anxiety or depression that is work-related.

Suicide is the biggest killer in men aged under 45 in Britain, and according to Mates in Mind, people in the construction sector are ten times more likely to die by suicide than from on-site accidents.

The numbers speak for themselves, but we know it can be harder to get people on board with taking health seriously – due to the fact that the long latency effects aren’t as obvious as an injury, for example.

The changes we make by investing in the physical and mental health of our workers could last a lifetime. If we make big changes that filter out into people’s homes then the next generation of worker may have a totally different perception of their own health.

Heather Beach, Director at The Healthy Work Company says: “There is a fundamental move towards the understanding that skills in engagement and influence are as necessary as technical knowledge in health and safety or you need a big enough team where you can have both competencies in different individuals.

“The even bigger shift, is from telling to enabling; from imparting knowledge to learning. Furthermore, the opportunity represented by health and safety professionals getting involved in mental health is that this simply cannot be done without being at the centre of how people are managed in an organisation. At the heart of its culture. As such it is an ideal vehicle for transformation of the profession.”

The next adventure

One key thing about the future of occupational health and safety, and all who sail in her, is the exciting prospects ahead. There is a wonderful world of opportunities for anyone who wants to spend their day keeping people safe, helping people take their health more seriously, and teaching people the importance of wellness.

To do so you need to be a strong, passionate communicator, someone who can focus up and down the line and communicate (and listen) at the appropriate level, someone who can balance risks with controls, budgets with boards, and people with perceptions.

Following the safest Olympics on record at London 2012 and some incredible innovation in the construction sector, now is the time to work in OSH in Great Britain.

Whether it is on-site, in film and TV, leisure, tourism, or agriculture, there is role to suit everyone. And while the occasional clipboard may be necessary, elbow pads are definitely a thing of the past.

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John Scott Grad Iosh
John Scott Grad Iosh
3 years ago

An excellent article. I do sometimes carry a clipboard but no elbow pads-Education can help the safety professional but experience of the sector you are working in is crucial. You need to take the time to understand different roles within an organisation and be able to assess the tasks these individuals undertake. I take a hands-on approach and and take the time to understand the tasks that are carried out on-site.Thorough risk assessments and safe systems of work need to be developed as well introducing behavioral safety if you want to prevent accidents occurring. Another area which is sometimes forgotten… Read more »

John Kersey
John Kersey
3 years ago

The health and safety professional of the 21st century will be a technocrat, facile in the use of high end AI applications actively seeking out risk issues in real time – they are already here in the oil and gas industries and energy fields. Wind turbine maintenance is driven by the use of drone technology and AI based predictive maintenance – that is where future health and safety is happening. Also increasingly in transport safety. Looking to the future we may even see AI driven office assistants dealing with people issues – a lot of the current research is around… Read more »

Duncan Brown
Duncan Brown
3 years ago

OSH professionals get a bad press while employing the most on trend training tech!!!