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Adam Bannister is a freelancer journalist who has held various editorial positions, including as editor of SHP's partner publication for security & fire safety, IFSEC Insider (formally IFSEC Global).
May 2, 2023

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IOSH President and Head of Policy on safe, healthy workplaces as a human right

IOSH’s President Lawrence Webb and Head of Policy Ruth Wilkinson preview their upcoming Safety & Health Expo 2023 keynote.

OSH experts hailed the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) 2022 adoption of a safe and healthy working environment as a fundamental principle and right at work as a watershed moment.

IOSH President Lawrence Webb and Head of Policy Ruth Wilkinson, will examine the decision’s implications for occupational safety and health (OSH) resourcing and enforcement worldwide at Safety & Health Expo next month.

The following interview with Webb and Wilkinson offers a sneak preview of what attendees can expect to learn during their keynote address on day one of the event at London ExCeL.

SHP: To give our readers a flavour of your upcoming presentation, what are the implications of making this principle a human right as well as an employment right?

Lawrence Webb

Lawrence Webb (LW): There is now an expectation that countries around the world recognise, consider and act on this fundamental principle, which now sits alongside other essential aspects such as abolition of child labour and the elimination of discrimination in the workplace.

The key impact is the emphasis of becoming a recognised fundamental principle – a starting point to build on. For me it always has been, but the emphasis has moved from something that hopefully comes as a result of employment to one that is an expectation and right for all employees.

Governments, employers, workers, OSH experts and other stakeholders involved in decision-making processes should be well informed of the implications while creating and implementing OSH policies and programmes.

That’s where the global OSH profession comes in to facilitate and support conversations from the highest level through a workforce and ecosystem, culminating in the development and implementation of action plans to make this essential principle business as usual.

Ruth Wilkinson (RW): The ILO declaration will hold governments accountable for placing a higher priority on a safe and healthy working environment and preventing accidents and ill health at work, and contribute to understanding how OSH can act as a positive lever in public policy agenda-setting.

The recognition is also likely to [encourage the creation of] solutions to poor access to OSH protections for migrant workers, and those employed in micro and SME businesses, in the informal economy or in other vulnerable forms of work.

IOSH also trusts this development will further strengthen the ties that evidence how OSH is a driver to human and economic benefits that go hand-in-hand with inclusive economic growth and business productivity and performance.

SHP: What is the potential impact of the ILO decision on the UK versus globally, especially in less developed countries with comparatively poor safety records?

Ruth Wilkinson

RW: Recognising the UK’s world-leading OSH system, IOSH believes there is still room for enhancing OSH standards and recommends that the UK government considers elevating occupational safety and health as a fundamental human right of every worker and a foundation of sustainable development and decent work.

This has been endorsed by the G7 by reinforcing its commitment to international standards relating to human rights and labour across global supply chains while maintaining high productivity and promoting employability.

The UK has ratified fewer than one in five of the ILO’s health and safety instruments. Therefore a more proactive approach to the ratification of ILO conventions is called for.

For least-developed countries experiencing deficits in OSH regulations and OSH capacity – primarily due to socioeconomic and political constraints – a proactive, accelerated implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No.155) and Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187) is recommended.

LW: We are all at different places in terms of culture, maturity, resources and motivation in this area. For some, it is confirmation of what is already a given, but for others it is a clear shift in emphasis and, no doubt, there will be an initial struggle for some.

The UK framework and structure has meant that there is both an understanding of enforcement of the fundamentals and, in less developed parts of the world, this is not necessarily the case, something which may slow understanding and implementation.

It is sad to look back, remember and realise that like other countries, we have had to learn the hard way and from the most tragic of circumstances. It is not the way to have to improve and realise what the basics should look like.

However, this ILO stance is a great opportunity for OSH professionals around the global to step forward and show the clear benefits that come with both protecting and investing in people – the most important asset. I have seen first-hand countries where there is a renewed interest in ensuring that this agenda is both understood and enacted and they should be given all the support available to help them succeed.

Realisation of the clear benefits that come with this right will drive employee expectations of OSH as a standard provision and in turn this will force employing organisations to review their policies.

However, their stakeholders, such as clients, customers and suppliers, must also add pressure to [ensure] organisations do the right thing. We already know through our own research that organisations that invest in their people and health and safety will attract [greater] investment.

SHP: In what ways does this news influence IOSH’s agenda?

LW: The news reinforces and supports the approach that IOSH has always made explicit as a professional membership organisation and throughout its work over many years.

My focus areas as president need to be scalable, strategic for longevity and a foundation for further development to leave a legacy that makes a difference.

I chose [my agenda] to align with our new five-year strategy, Activate 2028, and in the hope that they resonate with the working world: being future-fit for the next generation of OSH professional, recognising and harnessing neurodiversity, and recognising the ecosystems supporting large corporates that are all essential basics that need recognition.

Clearly each of these can relate directly or indirectly back to OSH as a fundamental principle and right at work, and they have been integrated into my work plans and communication strategy for the year.

RW: From a policy standpoint, this development will continue to be core to Activate 2028, by raising awareness on stronger alignment of OSH through a human rights-based approach in policy and business practices.

We will be advocating for this recognition to be implemented into practice. IOSH will advocate for governments to demonstrate a strong commitment of political will to embed a safe and healthy working environment as a fundamental element to decent work, for the ratification of OSH conventions and thus for national OSH frameworks, policies and action plans.

SHP: Lawrence, how is the presidency going so far?

LW: Time moves fast but feedback indicates that my focus areas and efforts to do whatever I can in support of the membership are landing well. On top of my focus areas that I already mentioned, my priority is two-fold.

Firstly, to ensure that as chair of the IOSH Council (the represented ‘voice’ into the IOSH Board on behalf of the membership) the 50,000 worldwide members are properly represented and consulted with to reflect their needs. Secondly, the work with my colleagues on the presidential team to spread the word of IOSH, the profession and associated messaging such as OSH as a fundamental principle wherever we can, in an interactive and engaging way that brings others on our journey.

I have learned so much in the role so far, but it has pulled on all my experience and skillset. Every day is a school day!

The drive, motivation and commitment from all those I meet, whether they are IOSH members or professionals or not, culminates in a genuine and heartfelt wish to ensure everyone is respected and able to be at their best and that they want to pay their part in making this true.

One thing is for sure – there is still a lot to be done, and once my year is over, I will continue supporting everyone who needs help in ensuring that OSH is evident, personal and impactful.

SHP: Ruth, what are your priorities as IOSH head of policy?

IOSH has six levels of membership

RW: In line with Activate 2028, our role is about representing the profession in advocating and influencing governments, decision-makers, policymakers, standard-setters and other actors in many aspects of safety, health and wellbeing at work around the world – and importantly to maximise influence and impact.

The team’s priorities are to promote policy positions that advocate for OSH, social sustainability and worker wellbeing at work, and input IOSH positioning and views into global consultation and call-for-evidence opportunities. Team members will also work with colleagues internally and with external stakeholders to advocate, influence and engage on OSH policy, IOSH positioning, social sustainability and foundational principles of OSH.

We will review and develop new positioning on OSH matters like technology and digitalisation, the informal economy and gig work, agriculture, textile and garment production, and healthcare. Please note, there is already positioning available on the topic we will be discussing at the event.

SHP: Anything else to add about your presentation or other topics?

RW: As part of Activate 2028 we will continue to champion OSH in social sustainability.

I will be sitting on another session at the event to explore OSH within the UN SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], and this will be an opportunity to look further into the direct OSH contributions to sustainable development. For more information please do review the IOSH website and our Catch the Wave campaign material.

Lawrence Webb and Ruth Wilkinson will be speaking at Safety & Health Expo in the SHP Keynote Theatre, which is sponsored by IOSH. The event takes place 16– 18 May at the ExCel, London, and their talk will be Tuesday 16th May from 10.30 – 11.15. Register to attend here.

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