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September 16, 2016

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Let’s create more light bulb moments in occupational health


By Kate Morris

At Tribe Culture Change , we often talk about people having a ‘light bulb moment’, when they feel truly engaged with health and safety. It’s a precious thing to witness – in one sudden instant, theory stops being just knowledge; consequences become real, personal and immediate.

A connection is made: someone ‘gets it’.

Life should be full of moments like these – when our attitudes, values and beliefs change, adapting to new circumstances, so we learn, and stay healthy and well.

I had my own light bulb moment recently, when someone revealed the cold, hard realities of work-related ill health and occupational disease. It made for an alarming presentation.

HSE estimates that there are approximately 13,000 deaths each year from work-related lung disease and cancer caused by past exposure to chemicals and dusts. That’s 13,000 lives ended prematurely because of work. 13,000 men and women who died leaving holes in the lives of their partners, children, parents and friends.

Moved by these figures, I dug around and found more unsettling reading on the Health in Construction website :

“In the construction sector there were 35 fatal accidents during 2014/15. In the same period it is estimated that around 4,000 construction workers died from cancer caused by their exposure to hazardous substances while at work. The majority of these cases are lung diseases caused by exposure to asbestos (2,600 deaths) and silica (600 deaths).

“In the same period around 3,000 workers in the Construction sector were suffering with breathing and lung problems they believed were caused or made worse by their work, a rate significantly higher than the average across all industries. 20% of workers identified ‘dusts from stone, cement, bricks or concrete’ as a contributing factor.”

The seeds were sown for another light bulb moment soon after…

Near where I live, a team were demolishing concrete structures. Carried by the wind, dust drifted over the perimeter fence and landed on cars parked nearby. Residents complained, and their cars were duly washed to prevent damage.

Yet I wondered if as much attention was being given to the team doing the demolition. Were they being protected from inhaling this unidentified dust?

Suddenly, those horrific statistics sprang into life once again. Right on my doorstep, literally.

These were people with real lives and families, living and working in my neighbourhood, being affected by potentially hazardous substances. Had dust been considered during planning? And were the health risks being managed as they should?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but that lightbulb moment earlier meant I looked at the situation in a whole new light.

My light bulb moments happened for two reasons

First, was access to the facts. I had no idea we were killing so many people every year as a result of their work. I became enlightened, able to make my own mind up about what’s right or wrong, based on accurate information.

Second, was that personal and emotional connection with the issue. Things felt more real to me because they had a direct connection with my day-to-day life.

I think we need to give the same fierce focus to health issues as we have to safety over the past few years. And we can do that by creating similar light bulb moments for more people, everywhere.

This demands a change in attitude

We need to consider the risks to physical and mental health in every aspect of work. And there are good commercial, as well as ethical, reasons for doing this. To be successful, businesses need to keep their highly skilled people in work and productive.

To achieve that, the emphasis on health at work must change.

Initiatives like Health in Construction are a great start, and there’s increasing emphasis on health and well-being in many industry sectors. But, as those sobering statistics show, we still have a long way to go.

Kate Morris is a consultant for Tribe Intelligent Culture Change, with over 30 years’ experience working in HR, business services and the construction sector. Tribe Culture Change formed in 2016 when Hill Solomon, the creative communications company, merged with culture change experts JOMC following a successful 10-year partnership. Their vision, to make a difference globally, uses a unique combination of art and science to create ‘cultures of together’.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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