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May 1, 2017

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Jack of all trades: the changing role of a health and safety professional


Ben Coak looks at the changing role of the health and safety professional and how they need to take on an increasing number of roles.

Health and safety professionals are used to utilising a range of skills and putting on a number of ‘hats’.

It is, and always has been, a multi-disciplinary role that overlaps with other fields. In Great Britain we have an enviable record of success since the enactment of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, as evidenced by the reduction of fatalities and work-related injuries since the Act.

However, the world in which the health and safety professional now works is very different from that of the 1970s. There are a number of trends that are making the flexibility and multi-skilled abilities of the health and safety professional more important than ever.

There are also growing pressures that result in more responsibilities coming to the role. These include:

  1. changes in the make-up of industry, including the increase in Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs);
  2.  changes in technology;
  3.  changes in culture;
  4. changes in politics;
  5. growing business pressures;
  6. the growth of third party verification and evidence collation;
  7. a greater focus on areas that have not been dealt with as thoroughly as safety.

These themes are prevalent throughout the Health and Safety Executive’s Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy and, as the strategy emphasises, we need to act together in order to address them.

A changing workplace

Since the 1970s there has been a distinct change in British industry moving away from traditional manufacturing and heavy industries e.g. steel production and mining to service industries.

Along with this trend there has been a reduction in large-scale employers in favour of smaller companies. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 99.9% of all private sector businesses at the start of 2016 were SMEs. A staggering 4.2 million were non-employing, as opposed to 1.3 million employing staff.

While managing employee safety is still crucial, getting the proportional risk management message to so many non-employing businesses is a challenge for all health and safety professionals.

In many industries the days of a set workplace are disappearing. More individuals than ever are working from home either permanently or on an occasional basis. For the health and safety professional this is increasingly complex as health and safety management strays into a person’s home.
For example, it is far more difficult to reduce the musculoskeletal risks from bad posture, or hazardous substance exposure from adhesives etc. when the work is not being carried out in a distinct workplace away from the home.

Remote working facilitated by technological advances also brings greater risks of lone working. Work away from a set workplace is to a large extent outside of the supervision and control of the health and safety professional or even direct line management and therefore risk management needs to be more informed and flexible for these situations than, for example, ensuring a safe system of work for a manufacturing process.

Nowadays. the health and safety professional has to take into account risks to workers in far more varied and less obvious scenarios than that of the traditional workplace.

New technologies such as GPS trackers, emergency call functions on mobile phones etc. can assist with this, so the health and safety professional has to be able to research, obtain and operate a range of technologies.

Technological change

The development and proliferation of new technologies is creating new ways of working. This naturally is resulting in new hazards and risks but also the potential of new methods of control.

Developments such as hydrogen-powered fuel cells, 3D Printing, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or ‘Drones’), driverless cars, Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the ‘Internet of Things’ will have profound impact on the way we work.

But simpler more taken-for-granted technologies such as smartphones and other media devices create an often overlooked impact. The risk of distraction in the workplace is perhaps greater than ever due to the proliferation of these devices. Also as exposure to these devices continues to increase, the effects of preventable musculoskeletal risks such as poor posture are likely to become more notable.

Though not without their problems, these technologies may also bring about significant risk reduction. For example, the use of drones for surveying work can greatly reduce the need to work at height. 3D Printing and other forms of mechanised fabrication will likely result in substantial risk reduction in the construction industry. Apps on mobile devices make it easier than ever to undertake detailed risk assessments and construction phase plans.

The Cambridge University Institute of Criminology study demonstrated that the use by officers of body-worn camera led to a 93% reduction of public complaints against the police suggesting behavioural changes that ‘cool down’ potentially volatile situations.

The health and safety professional has to keep abreast of the ever-changing world of technology like never before. The hazards must be recognised and technology needs to be embraced and used to control risk.

Cultural change

Technological change and globalisation are also accelerating cultural change.

Some health and safety professionals may be reasonably au fait with social media, apps and emoji’s, although there’s also probably plenty of us who dread hearing such terms.

Whether reasonably knowledgeable or completely ignorant of such things, it has to be acknowledged that they are perceived as being part of normal life by the generation now coming into the workplace. Children today will not know a world without them. The Connected Kids report (2016) concluded that children aged five to sixteen spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen and this is likely to increase.

This creates new ways of thinking and new ways of experiencing the world that need to be understood if the message of sensible and proportionate risk management is to be disseminated. In this era of ‘fake news’ and 24 hour multi-channel entertainment there is the possibility that information overload may result in this message being lost.

We need to creatively use these new mediums to display our message clearly in ways in that differing audiences understand. The Social Media Kit of the Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy is a step in this direction, but more needs to be done if we are to win hearts and minds.

Another hazard with these technology-led cultural changes is that workplace bullying can now extend into online bullying, with all of the psychosocial health effects associated with this. Human resource policies often struggle with supporting employees with such experiences and so health and safety professionals endeavouring to improve the wellbeing of employees will need to not only be able to spot stress and anxiety in the workplace but also consider how this can continue beyond work.

Political change

The health and safety legislative environment is in a state of uncertainty.

Although the 1974 Act was derived from British-led legislation, the continual Government requested reviews and challenges over the last decade, together with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, indicates that further attempts to amend and revise the Act are likely.

Furthermore, while there is significant speculation as to what will happen to EU-led regulations following Brexit, another matter that has not been greatly discussed is whether health and safety legislation will follow environmental legislation into an increasingly complicated federalised United Kingdom.

It is not too hard to imagine divergent health and safety requirements in Wales, England and Scotland; after all most of the health and safety legislation we generally think of only applies to Great Britain with Northern Ireland, The Isle of Man and Channel Islands already having a great deal of local health and safety legislation. Scotland too has several differing legislative requirements.

The various RIDDOR or CDM equivalents in the differing areas are prime examples, but the differing fire protection requirements in Scotland or the differences in Building Regulations in all devolved nations are other examples of divergent legislative requirements.

Therefore the health and safety legislative landscape is not as simple as it would appear on a first glance and change is likely. There is a good chance legislative compliance is going to get a lot more complicated simply based upon geographical area. As such, health and safety professionals need to become political analysts and keep an eye on political and legislative changes more than ever.

Growing business pressures

As companies recovering from a global recession fight to minimise potential losses from the political and economic uncertainty of developments such as Brexit, it is inevitable that more and more responsibilities will be pushed onto the health and safety professional.

At the same time as companies are trying to reduce costs, there are increasing reporting requirements, particularly within large companies, on a whole range of corporate social responsibility topics from the Energy Savings Opportunities Scheme (ESOS) to the Transparency in Supply Chains provision of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

In addition to these reporting requirements, as information is more freely available and consumers can voice dissatisfaction over social media with devastating impact on brand image, companies are finding out that they have to protect themselves more than ever from reputation damage.

Adding to this is the fact that the increase in sentencing penalties due to Section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (which came into force on 12th March 2015) has had a significant impact on health and safety offences sentenced in magistrates’ courts after that date.

Prior to 16th January 2009 the maximum penalty in a magistrates’ court for a breach of Section 2 of HSWA was £20,000. This is now an unlimited fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both.

Furthermore, the Sentencing Guideline for corporate manslaughter, health and safety and food safety and hygiene offences that came into effect in England and Wales on the 1st February 2016 changed the perspective of enforcement from one of outcome (e.g. fatal incident, injury or work-related illness) to one of exposure to risk (e.g. the chances of a fatal incident etc.).

The rationale being that exposing someone to a high risk of death, injury or illness should warrant almost the same sentence regardless of whether there is a fatality, injury or illness or merely an exposure to risk without any injury. Therefore, offences that previously had low level penalties due to there being no specific injury are now likely to attract higher penalties on par with an offence where an actual injury took place.

This means that conscientious employers are looking to health and safety professionals to safeguard them over a range of topics that stray from traditional health and safety management at the same time as protecting them from failures in their health and safety management systems.

The growth of third party verification and evidence collation

While auditing, monitoring and reviewing the implementation of health and safety management systems is nothing new, the health and safety professional has nowadays got to ensure that evidence of implementation is available at all times. The greater costs of non-compliance is one of the driving forces behind this, but a growing trend towards external certification also has a contributory factor.

There is perceived worldwide need to harmonise health and safety management systems using an international standard, culminating in the long-awaited ISO 45001. This is for two main reasons:

  1. Organisations have for some time recognised the benefits of demonstrating that their systems have been audited by independent third parties; and
  2. clients are increasingly stipulating such evidence as part of their pre-qualification requirements.

There is a clear emphasis on third party auditing. Many companies are now accredited to BS OHSAS 18001:2007 (which will be replaced with ISO 45001) and the Health and Safety Executive’s L153 Manging Health & Safety in Construction specifically references accreditation bodies that are members of the Safety Schemes in Procurement (SSiP) forum as one way of determining general organisational capability at the pre-qualification stage.

As such, the health and safety professional has got to be a master at organising documentation and data. This in itself brings about other responsibilities in relation to information security and data protection. All health and safety professionals should make themselves aware of the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will be replacing the Data Protection Act 1998 by mid-2018.

Increased focus on health and wellbeing

Since HSWA came into force, there has been a remarkable reduction in workplace fatalities and serious injuries. This is due to both the legislative framework, changes in industry and the work of health and safety professionals. There is, however, a consensus that we need to do more with regards to health and wellbeing. There are still substantial causes of ill health within the workplace that need addressing and these are changing from process produced ill-health to psychosocial ill-health such as stress and anxiety. This is why the Health and Safety Executive’s Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy firmly emphasises the need to do more work in relation to preventing work-related ill health.

The emphasis on health and wellbeing is also reaching beyond health and safety management into how this affects society as a whole. At the annual Charity Commission lecture on January 9th 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her vision for mental health support throughout society, including the workplace. As such, the traditional ‘champion of the employee’ role of the health and safety professional will increasingly expand from looking after employees’ health and safety when at work to ensuring their wellbeing and encouraging healthy lifestyles.

That health and safety professionals need to be aware of the wider picture is nothing new. However, increasingly fast-paced changes in technology, culture and politics require us to be utilising and honing new skills and knowledge like never before.

The traditional activities and focus of the health and safety professional are changing to encompass a complete holistic approach to ensuring health, safety and wellbeing of individuals in the workplace and beyond.
The world is changing rapidly and the health and safety profession needs to be vigilant for new risks but also quick to use new technology to control risk and use new media avenues to disseminate the messages of sensible and proportionate risk management and wellbeing.

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Ben Coak
Ben Coak
7 years ago

I would love to hear how relevant people feel the contents of this article are to them or what else is having an impact on the role of the health & safety professional.

7 years ago

Hello I very much enjoyed this article and the part that resonated most with me, based on my current situation, is that regarding health and well-being. My role as an HSSE Manager covers all that was mentioned but the one i find most troubling is health and well-being. In my organisation, the culture is not mature and getting safety compliance is such a struggle, imagine the situation with health. In the last week, more and more persons have been speaking to me about stress and anxiety and de-motivation. I understand where the problem is coming from, but my hands are… Read more »

Ben Coak
Ben Coak
7 years ago
Reply to  Alicia

Hi Alicia, I agree that getting buy-in from senior management is a massive challenge for a health & safety professional. It is one of those matters that requires continual work using as many methods as possible. I guess one of the key things to keep in mind is that senior management think in terms of income, profit margins and deductions. If you can demonstrate that the cost benefits of higher staff well-being outweigh the ‘costs’ of approved time off etc. you might have a chance of turning their minds. Use statistics to you advantage. The HSE poster on stress and… Read more »