Safety and Health Expo
Tackling work-related health, and not just safety hazards
How do safety professionals take the same uncompromising approach to eradicating the impact of work-related health issues as we do to tackling safety hazards? Asked Matthew Cleve of Juice Learning at the Safety & Health Expo.
Something needs to change… action needs to be taken… accountability needs to be embraced. But why? We’re doing ok, aren’t we?
Over the last 40 years the UK has seen a long-term downward trend in workplace fatalities and non-fatal injuries. That is a credit to the HSE, to business, to safety professionals and to the millions of workers who have contributed to a huge improvement in safety standards. So, what needs to change?
Well, despite the improvements there is still much to be done when it comes to safety, but there is even more to do when it comes to health. Safety professionals, managers and supervisors across the UK (and the world) need to take the same uncompromising approach to eradicating instances of work-related ill health as many of them already do to tackling workplace injuries and fatalities. So something needs to change.
HSE statistics for 2016 suggest that for every worker killed in an accident there were around 90 deaths as the result of past exposure to hazardous substances at work. Whilst it may be argued that the ‘lag-factor’ will mean that this figure will diminsh over time, there are still an estimted 14,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems annually. Work-related ill health affects 1.3m of the UK workforce with an annual economic cost to the UK of £9.3bn, most of which is borne by the individual suffering the ill-health.
We are doing a lot to improve, but we are not doing enough. There are promising signs that many organisations are increasingly keen to redress what is all too often a significant imbalance in the phrase ‘health and safety’. There is an increasing desire to encourage managers and employees to give work-related ill health the focus it so desperately deserves by increasing awareness of the significant long-term consequences of this issue in its various forms and by raising standards when it comes to prevention and protection.
At the recent Safety & Health Expo at London’s ExCel Centre, we explored some of these issues through an interactive session in the Keynote Theatre.
Given that we directly followed Professor Brian Cox’s presentation on the origins of the universe, we were faced with an astronomical challenge (sorry!), but by using a mixture of live theatre and activities, we helped delegates to consider the difficulties their organisations face in creating a culture of excellence when it comes to work-related ill health.
During facilitated discussions, participants talked about the challenges of getting their managers and superviors to pay as much attention to something that may kill their employees in twenty years time as they quite rightly do to the things that could kill them now, here, today, in the blink of an eye. To many, one seems a far more pressing issue than the other.
Others expressed the difficulties they had in getting all employees to take health surveillance seriously and to convince them of the need for the recording of accurate, meaningful data with regard to Workplace Exposure Limits. They talked of the change of mindset that was still required to get to this point.
Others still talked about the need to rid their organisations of the stigma that often surrounds stress or mental ill health so that open and honest conversations could take place in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. One brave soul ventured that this may be particularly relevent in the more ‘traditional’, male-dominated industries.
A recurring theme was the need for effective leadership at all levels of a business: a managing director and board who genuinely care about the long-term health and wellbeing of the people they employ; managers who actively promote the health agenda and provide a healthy environment for people to work in; supervisors who enforce the rules and encourage excellence when it comes to avoiding instances of work-related ill health.
As well as discussing the issues, participants were also challenged emotionally. The theatrical scenarios allowed delegates to explore the possible long-term consequences that can arise when an employee contracts a serious illness as a result of their historical work activities.
The kinds of consequences that have a debilitating affect on a person’s ability to carry out normal, day-to-day activities. The kinds of consequences that have a devastating impact on the individual and those that they love; partners, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, friends. The kinds of consequences that managers, supervisors and safety people are rarely around to see, often long-since moved on to new companies, new challenges, new beginnings. Out of sight, out of mind?
So, something needs to change. With half a million workers in 2016 in pain from work-related musculoskeletal disorders, half a million suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and a total of 25.9 million working days lost due to work-related ill health, all companies need to ensure that they are doing all they can to keep their people not just safe, but also healthy.
So, if you haven’t already, now is the time to act. If you’re still only really focussing on safety, now is the time for change.
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