The language of health and safety

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Evidence strongly suggests that Britain’s goal-setting approach to risk has worked. The challenge is to make this good health and safety as universal as the English language.

It was Japanese chief executive Hiroshi Mikitani who said that “English is the only global language” after Rakuten, his services firm, became an English-only organisation.

From my point of view, there is no doubt that having English as a first language makes working with businesses and sharing messages on good health and safety easier. The universality of the English language is one reason why the ‘British’ in the British Safety Council continues to work as the moniker for the global organisation we are.

I would also say that health and safety in Britain has a strong and credible reputation across the globe. Kevin Myers, acting chief executive of HSE, in his keynote speech at our recent International Safety Awards gala dinner, reminded us of the longevity of our system. The first four factory inspectors, appointed way back in 1833, faced strong opposition to ensure what today we would regard as the most basic protection for workers, many of whom were children. Taking such protection for granted today has a lot to do with nearly 200 years of progress.

Such attitudes around the sanctity of life and importance of health and safety are unfortunately not as universal as the English language. The International Labour Organisation estimates that every day over 1,000 workers are fatally injured globally.

The evidence strongly suggests that Britain’s goal-setting approach to risk that the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) enshrined 40 years ago, giving managers the responsibility to develop risk management systems  appropriate to their circumstances, has worked. Work-related fatalities in Great Britain have dropped by approximately 80% since the early 70’s and, though this is in part attributable to changes in the composition of our industrial make-up, improvements were quickly apparent when the philosophy set out in the Robens report underpinning the HSWA was adopted.

In his speech, Kevin also highlighted the damaging consequences of risk aversion and prescriptive approaches that would seem to be behind many of the myths that often feature in some parts of the media. This matters for our international role. He issued a challenge to the businesses attending the gala dinner, asking them to avoid adding to this culture of risk aversion.

The fear is that a drive for continuous improvement by the ‘best’ leads inevitably to targeting relatively low risks. Such a loss of proportion is contrary to the Robens principles underpinning HSWA. It will discredit health and safety in the eyes of those we want to influence.

It was, he said, better to focus on improvements that actually stop people being killed, injured or made ill. Kevin issued a further challenge; he asked award winners what they’re doing to improve the standards of their suppliers.

Supply chains, often extended all over the world, are where leadership can really make a difference; for example in the garment sector where the cost of failure was made so graphically clear at the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh last year when over 1,100 people lost their lives.

I would say that in the HSWA we have tried and tested a model that helps build health and safety cultures and that by working closely with our members through their supply chains we can provide leadership and act as an agent for significant improvements. Good health and safety can and should be as universal as the English language.

Alex Botha is the chief executive of the British Safety Council



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