Equality means caring for the most vulnerable

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One of the privileges of chairing the British Safety Council is being part of an organisation that, from its board of trustees through to its thousands of members, has a collective will, commitment and determination that everyone will have a safe and healthy place of work.

What we recognise is that, for a variety of reasons from birth and experience, some people are more vulnerable than others to harm; and in a decent society that means taking care rather than using this as an excuse for discrimination.

The main focus in modern health and safety – originally driven as a leading element of occupational hygiene for health risks that can take years of exposure to develop detectable harm – is the risk assessment. 

Working out where the threats to causing ill health or accidents that can injure are, evaluating the nature and scale of the threat in practice, and then planning appropriate protective measures to prevent that harm arising has become the bread and butter of managing risk. Managers and business leaders do this every day, and largely and increasingly, with success.

But too often the process is undertaken without the involvement, engagement and, indeed, knowledge and expertise of those working with the hazards. In general this reduces the likelihood of the risk assessment being fully valid and greatly diminishes the consistency with which the control measures are employed. 

But when the risks are being run by people who are more likely to be harmed, and these people are not part of the risk review procedures, the chances of the protective measures really ensuring their wellbeing are zooming down towards zero.

That is why consultation, engagement, involvement and participation – a set of terms based on respect and trust – aren’t a ‘nice to have’ but can be seen to be vital.

If equality at work is going to be enacted, it won’t be by doing stuff to people, but by people working together to achieve it. Just as workers know the intimate details of their work, and can add much to the analysis of technical experts such as engineers, safety practitioners, ergonomists and others, so people who have disabilities – permanent or temporary through injury or illness – or other vulnerabilities such as being young and inexperienced – have much to contribute to managing risk effectively.

When we are collectively, confidently protecting the weakest members of our community and ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to play a full part, then we can be sure that our arrangements are good for everyone.

One of the aspects of being human rather than robots is that we are not wholly predictable, or definable by whatever measures are applied to our current status. 

Setting standards and meeting them for what we think could be vulnerabilities in others results in standards that protect all of us even if we are only ‘having a bad day’ rather than nursing a long-term chronic condition or managing a disability. 

The recent sad case of a young woman who died because of her intolerance of sesame seeds, which highlighted the rise in allergies and the need for accurate information to be made readily available, has emphasised the essential vulnerability of the human condition. That is one of the reasons why looking after the ‘vulnerable’ actually makes a lot of sense for all of us. 

Next time you’re considering arrangements for vulnerable workers, think of the ending of that great film Some Like it Hot: nobody’s perfect!


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