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November 2, 2005

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National Safety Symposium- Putting the profession’s problems right

Training gaps, confusion over risk assessment, and the fact that practitioners too often talk “complete nonsense” were all highlighted as issues for the profession at this year’s Public Services Group’s National Safety Symposium.

You could have been forgiven for walking away from Keele University with the view that the health and safety profession is in a bit of mess. But, of course, that isn’t the case — it’s just the overwhelming desire of IOSH members to do their job better, to keep more people safe, and to ensure the profitability of the organisations they work for.

And with IOSH set to designate the first chartered safety and health practitioners this month, these are all issues where the Institution will be looking to members develop their skills.

Too much jargon

In the very first presentation of the Symposium, by Dr Tony Boyle, from Health and Safety Technology and Management, health and safety professionals were told to put their “house in order”, learn to communicate in business and financial terms, and move away from just talking about legislative compliance.

If we don’t speak the language of business, Dr Boyle argued, boards will “switch off” to health and safety, practitioners will have less impact in the workplace, and the profession will continue to be vulnerable to public attack.

The solution, according to Dr Boyle, is for practitioners to learn to communicate in simple language — which is one of the areas that IOSH’s new Continuing Professional Development course programme (CPD) scheme seeks to address.

“We use far too much jargon. Who else says COSHH for chemicals and DSE for display equipment?” Dr Boyle said.

“Quality is about money, environment is about money, health and safety is about complying with the law. We need to move to some sort of financial basis for what we are doing. We can’t go on talking about COSHH, RIDDOR and not talk about finance and the business case. If we are going to continue speaking in jargon, boards are going to switch off.”

Gary Booton, director of health, safety and environment at EEF, the manufacturer’s association, agreed with this argument and added: “I question the view that fines and imprisonment are a driver for companies. That’s why we’ve got to use the business case when presenting to our boards. But it’s important you manage expectations — just because you make £10,000 this year doesn’t mean you’ll make £20,000 next year.”

IOSH, too, believes that it is time the profession started to talk about the ‘business case’ for health and safety decision-making, and realises that training that enables professionals to do this is vital.

Training gaps

Robert King, director of training at Woodland Grange, argued that existing courses for safety and health professionals do not give them the skills they need: “I believe as safety practitioners we are let down by some of the courses. They are syllabi-driven and that does not give us the vocational requirements for the job.

“Boards are very concerned about receiving cost effective solutions. It’s very easy to go in and say the company is in breach of Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, but we should be telling them what the deficiencies are, and putting forward a number of solutions to them.”

IOSH shares these concerns, but is confident that with mandatory CPD for most members from November, health and safety practitioners will be encouraged to proactively develop the skills they need to have a real impact at board level.

To find out more about the CPD scheme, or for more information on chartered status, please visit

Risk assessment

The Symposium also debated how far safety and health practitioners should go to assess risk — is it the job of the practitioner to assess every possibility, or should they just concentrate on the hazards that are most likely to cause harm?

Dr Boyle was in no doubt: “Can anyone tell me anything in the world that isn’t a hazard? How useful is going out and spotting everything?

“The definitions of risk we are using also don’t make any sense. One is that risk equals likelihood of harm occurring — but that’s not risk!”

Olu Adeolu, head of corporate health and safety at Lewisham Borough Council, said that focusing on ‘real risks’ is particularly important when carrying out risk assessments on flexible working: “A lot of safety practitioners get carried away and try to cover every possible scenario. I don’t think that is the right way, we need to step back and look at the real risks.”

However, Mr King cautioned: “New Orleans didn’t build their levees high enough — they didn’t think about the severity of what might happen if those levees were breached. Unless the safety practitioner thinks the unthinkable, then no one will.”

What do you think? Should the health and safety profession, with its new chartered members, be looking at every possibility or just those hazards most likely to impact on the task at hand? Let us know by joining in the discussion forum at

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