Is there too much safety and not enough health?
David Day, Head of SHE at nuclear specialist Nuvia, has undertaken some research which discusses whether safety really does get more attention.
I suppose you’ve heard it too? Statements such as: ‘there is too much focus on safety and not health’ and ‘health is safety’s poor cousin’. This got me thinking – is this actually the case? Whilst it makes sense intuitively, is there any evidence to back this up? Does safety really get more attention than health? Focusing on two aspects, enforcement and culture, I decided to find out.
It is argued, in the context of the United States construction industry, that safety risks receive more regulatory attention than occupational health (1). But is this the case in the UK?
According to the HSE’s own prosecution data, referring to health-risk specific legislation (most recent available), of the 583 defendants prosecuted, only 30 defendants (5%) were prosecuted using specific health risk-related legislation.
Also, HSE commissioned research found that: ‘there is evidence that greater attention is given in regulatory enforcement to matters of occupational safety, despite increasing concern about occupational health matters…The consequence of this is a tendency for the resources of formal enforcement to be much more heavily devoted to safety matters, particularly accidents’ (2).
The literature tells us that organisations focus more of their attention on safety culture-related issues, often neglecting health. For example, in the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting, one study found that CSR reports mainly contain indices on occupational safety culture-related factors, whereas the reporting of health and wellbeing is rarely covered (3). Additionally, it is claimed that small and medium enterprises appear to be more orientated toward safety cultural issues in the workplace rather than health (4).
Finally, from a mental health perspective, a recent review by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer found that too often employers only focus on physical health and safety risks in the workplace, failing to manage work-related mental ill-health (link 6).
Whilst this is only a snapshot of the research, it would appear that safety does indeed receive more focus than health – both in terms of regulatory focus and cultural aspects. It would appear those statements may be right after all!
It is now up to us in the SHE profession to continue the fight to address this imbalance.
1 – Malek, El-Safty, El-Safety, Sorce (2010). The correlation between safety practices in construction and occupational health. Management Science and Engineering.
2 – Hawkins (1992). The Regulation of occupational health and safety: a socio-legal perspective”. Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University.
3 – Koskela (2014). Occupational health and safety in corporate social responsibility report. Safety Science.
4 – Bradshaw et al. (2001). Provision and perception of occupational health in small and medium-sized enterprises in Sheffield, Occupational Medicine.
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