Health: don’t drop the ball

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We must built on the growing awareness among global governments, regulators and businesses of the importance and benefits of managing occupational health risks.

In the day-to-day juggling that we all do, it is said that health is the one ball that shouldn’t be dropped.

And yet in relation to work-related disease and ill health, the statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that 80% of days lost are attributable to work-related ill health while 20% are attributable to workplace injury.

However, the picture is more complex than that, as there is evidence to show that significant improvements are being achieved too: the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) has almost halved over the past 23 years, while there have also been significant reductions over the last 10 years in work-related asthma, skin diseases and conditions caused by vibration.

From one angle the evidence from HSE and others engaged in this arena does seem to suggest that improvements are being achieved, recognising also those other factors, such as the changing industrial composition of our economy, are influencing this picture. But from another angle it is evident that more needs to be done.

It is also clear that some businesses won’t wait to be guided by government policies to address key issues. Just such a point was made by Professor Julian Peto at a recent conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
in relation to asbestos. He contended that the introduction of tighter asbestos regulation in Great Britain lagged behind industry practice, such that by the time more comprehensive regulations were introduced, the industry had stopped using the killer material.

Fundamental to all this is having good evidence of risks and an understanding of how to manage them. And we can’t ignore the fact that we are living with the legacy of dangerous materials and substances no longer used but which may lie latent for years before causing disease and even death.

For that reason it is essential that we try to remain ahead of the game when controlling risks that materials, processes and indeed the demographics of our workforce pose to our health. Safety Management magazine recently explored the development of thinking and understanding of just one relatively new hazard – nanomaterials – and the risk these could pose to our health.

This is where we have to juggle – remembering to ensure that we continue to manage the hazards we see as being ‘commonplace’ without taking our eye off those coming in the future.

For instance, over the last 10 years we have seen a significant increase in the incidence and number of work-related stress cases, but simultaneously more employers are providing support to help their employees cope with stress.

Although the extent and effectiveness of that support varies considerably across businesses, the CBI/Pfizer ‘Fit for purpose’ survey found that “nine out of 10 organisations operate stress and anxiety management policies of some type” in 2013, which is a positive sign.

As part of our commitment to contribute to the debate, the British Safety Council’s conference Pushing ‘health’ up the workplace agenda on 15 October will focus on reducing the burden of ill health on business.

And there remains a dilemma that we really have still to bottom out – the extent to which employers must or should take some responsibility for the personal health of their employees.

Some employers see issues as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical fitness and diet as clearly within their sphere of responsibility. Others view the issues as inherently personal and as such matters strictly for the conscience of their employees.

So there can at least be some agreement that occupational health is now fully in focus, and is a ball we don’t intend to drop.

Neal Stone is director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council. 

For more information about the British Safety Council’s conference, Pushing ‘health’ up the workplace agenda, taking place on 15 October 2014 in London, visit: www.britsafe.org/london2014


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