Is Safety and Health at the heart of your work?

Mental Health

Yes, you have your fire assembly point sign on the door and a first aid kit in the cupboard. And to prove it’s a good place to work you even have a rather attractive silver plaque award bolted to the wall in reception! Nice.

But in a world where the workplace is constantly evolving you have to ask: is that enough? Is your organisation keeping pace with emerging risks and doing everything it can to ensure a safe and healthy working environment?

"It’s not only working conditions that have changed over time, it’s the nature of health and safety hazards as well."

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder

It is easy (and often more convenient) to think that ‘health and safety’ only applies to keeping people physically safe. After all, that’s how it’s always been. First Aider mugshots on the notice board, everything with a plug needs to be PAT tested, standing desks for everyone and a mandatory e-learning course on how far your nose should be from your screen.

To be fair, I can see why. The application of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 appears to focus on the physical risks. Slips, trips and falls and musculoskeletal injuries etc. But here’s what section 2 of the act says:

"It shall be the duty of all employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all their employees whilst they are at work."

‘Safety’ is relatively straight forward. That used to be the most obvious risk. But it’s not so clear cut anymore.

What about ‘Health’ and ‘Welfare’? Apparently ignored since 1974, these risks are often not so obvious; more problematic to measure and arguably far more prevalent and costly than Repetitive Strain Injury and bad backs.

Did you know that 57% of all working days lost in the UK was caused by stress, anxiety and depression? Among the main causes of this absence are:

  • workload pressures (leading to a health issue), 
  • a lack of management support (leading to a health issue)
  • and threats/abuse at work (leading to health, safety and welfare issues)

In one of my previous articles: “Stress: if we didn’t cause it, it’s not our problem” I got on my soap box about how we need to take a more holistic view of employee wellbeing. If your organisations approach is based on the “man up” school of thought, then I am afraid I have bad news. The times are a changing.

A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report: “Safety and Health at the Heart of the Future of Work” highlights several emerging risks. They include rapidly advancing technology, privacy, an ageing workforce, excessive work hours and non-standard forms of employment.

Lone workers and the increasing number of people choosing to work from home may be at more risk than others. We shouldn’t assume that agile/home working will work for everyone.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ could mean employees feel disconnected, or put in more hours than contracted and never switch off.

The report specifically recognises “…a blurring of the lines between home and work…” which creates “…unique psychosocial pressures for workers attempting to balance the demands of work life and home-based responsibilities

Net result, more stress. And more stress can mean more absenteeism, presenteeism, bad decisions and costly mistakes.

The Health and Safety Executive warns that where human errors are made, employers shouldn’t just wash their hands of any responsibility and lay the blame at the feet of individuals.

HSG48 guidance document (published in 1999!) tells us that ‘Human failure is normal and predictable. It can be identified and managed.’ So, a health and safety issue then.

In their really useful guide called ‘Understanding Human Failure’, they identify work environment, social issues, individual stressors like a lack of sleep and family issues, as factors that cause errors.

They also point to organisational issues – like “failing to understand where mistakes can occur and implement controls, such as training and monitoring” and that getting it right can ‘… improve your health and safety and bring additional benefits to your business performance and productivity.’ Win-win.

So to sum this all up…

If an organisation knows or suspects their staff are stressed due to workloads, pressure or dealing with violence/aggression in the workplace - what are they doing about it?

And I mean REALLY doing about it.

The best companies in the world understand that by creating a culture of engagement and involving their people, especially in difficult times, they get the best from them.

“Put your people at the heart of your vision and they’ll use their talents to achieve it.”

Paul Devoy- Head of Investors in People

The World Day for Safety and Health at Work is an annual international campaign to promote safe, healthy and decent work. It is held on 28 April and has been observed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) since 2003. To find out more about the initiative, visit the ILO’s website here: https://www.ilo.org/safework/events/safeday/WCMS_673988/lang--en/index.htm