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50 years of health and safety - what next?

To mark this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work, ATT Director, Dermot Kerrigan, reflects on 50 years of health and safety regulation and creating a positive workplace culture for the 21st century.

As Victor Hugo had it, ‘Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age’. Anyone working in the health and safety sector will know that 2022 marks a significant anniversary; fifty years since the publication of the Robens report, which formed the basis of British health and safety regulation embodied in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The half-century milestone seems an apposite moment to reflect on whether our approach to health and safety still ‘fits’ or – like many of us when we hit our fifth decade – needs a bit of work to get into shape for the next chapter.

Undoubtedly our workplaces are safer than in the early seventies when there were around 1,000 workplace fatalities each year; in 2020-21 the figure was 142. Statistically, the UK is one of the safest countries in the world to work. The tabloids might periodically declare ‘it’s health and safety gone mad’ during silly season, but regulation has been the key driver making Britain one of the safest countries in the world to work by establishing standards, monitoring compliance and using sanctions when employers fall short.

Social, economic and political shifts have significantly changed the landscape of the economy and resulted in larger workforces in less high-risk sectors. In 1970, services accounted for just 56% of the UK economy, but by 2016 it had risen to 80%. There were 5.6 million fewer people working in mining, manufacture and energy, than fifty years ago. Technology has made work environments safer; increasingly we can design out risk by eliminating human presence from hazardous environments and assigning potentially injurious tasks to our increasingly agile and automated workmates. Note the development of climbing robots to autonomously inspect wind turbines.

So far, so much safer, but it’s a mixed picture. Workers’ mental wellbeing has not fared as well as their physical health. Of the 1.7 million employees who reported experiencing work-related illness in 2020-21, 822,000 were suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety.

In the construction industry, there are more deaths from suicide than falls from height. A Chartered Institute of Building survey published in 2020 found that over a quarter of people working in the sector had experienced suicidal thoughts and 97% had experienced stress.

“Some of the traditional hazards of the physical environment have been brought under control over the past years. What we must now increasingly tackle is the social or management environment which may underlie poor safety performance.”

This comment, by the then-Chief Inspector of Factories, dates back to 1970, but feels very prescient. The three factors in precursor events which lead to major incidents in high-hazard industries are leadership, attitudes and behaviours and oversight, rather than automated systems failure.

To mark this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has published Enhancing social dialogue towards a culture of safety and health: What have we learned from the COVID-19 crisis? in which it advocates participation and social dialogue to embed a positive organisational safety and health culture. As the potential hazards in the workplace change, our approach to health and safety needs to flex and adapt.

The Robens’ philosophy has informed the framework of the health and safety regulation which has successfully reduced fatality, injury and poor health in the workplace over the past 50 years. However, we need 21st century thinking to meet today’s challenges.

While human behaviour is less easily legislated for than say a requirement for machine guarding, people can be guided towards actions which create a culture of communication and where workers feel valued. ATT believes we can create a step change in attitudes towards health and safety training, engage people at an emotional level and enable everyone to be confident safety leaders.

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