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November 13, 2009

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National Safety Symposium- Tackling ill health’s GBP 100bn price tag

The health agenda is here to stay — and health and safety professionals have to engage with it, attendees of the National Safety Symposium were told.

With health-related worklessness costing the staggering equivalent of two Buncefields a week, every week, the case for action is clear. The cost of failing to help people who are out of work because of health issues already tops £100bn, and could get astronomically higher if we don’t change things soon.

That was the reason for Dame Carol Black’s review of the working-age population, and Dame Carol herself told symposium delegates that it is now time for action: “We’ve had lots of reviews and we just need to get some of it done.”

Dame Carol has already proposed replacing the sicknote with a ‘fitnote’ — “I wanted to stop this dreadful practice of people leaving the workplace with mild and moderate conditions” — and said she hoped this would start being used by April 2010.

But, she added, there is still a need to get people working together better: “There needs to be ownership and a culture that helps a better understanding of health from top to bottom. We need to promote more support for keeping our staff physically healthy. I want to see the relationship between line managers and employees improve. Good line management promotes better health and well-being.”

IOSH president, Nattasha Freeman, said one of the big issues is that GPs don’t know about the workplace: “Doctors have no knowledge of work. GPs have two options: sicknote or no sicknote. They also have no access to SMEs. If you are a small company you are likely to have access to a health and safety practitioner, but not to occupational health.”

Neil Budworth, corporate health and safety manager at E.ON, agreed: “Between 1980 and 2003, 600,000 people a year got thrown on the scrapheap. Going to see a GP is effectively a self-certification — you get really bizarre things on sicknotes.

“There are a third of a million people claiming incapacity benefit due to musculoskeletal disorders. Most of these people can return to work. Where there’s a simple fix we can play a huge part — you can see if someone has red skin. We’re handily placed because we’ve got background knowledge and access to the management team.”

IOSH, of course, and many other bodies also have a key role to play. Nattasha said health and safety professionals have to rise to the challenge set by John Hutton MP at the IOSH conference three years ago — and there’s still some way to go to achieve that.

“We’ve made a good business case for the safety side but we’ve neglected the health,” she said. “The last three years have helped us focus more on health. If you want to be true advocates for the people we represent in the workplace we have to look at the whole thing.”
Dame Carol reiterated the need for partnership, saying: “Only by working together will our efforts help us tackle workplace illness. No one stakeholder can do this on their own. It’s immensely complex and difficult to put it together and we need all of you to get involved.”

Nattasha said the pilot training course in occupational health, which is being jointly funded by IOSH and the Department for Work and Pensions, is the key way health and safety professionals are being taught to assist occupational physicians, medics and nurses.

“People in occupational health think we’re trying to take their jobs, but we’re not. There are 35,000 IOSH members and we can assist and work together with them. The role for us is proactive intervention. The course is about helping us to know when to refer something, and who to.”

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