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The language of risk prevention: the 20th health and safety World Congress

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Nearly 4,000 participants gathered at the 20th health and safety World Congress last month to hear experts discuss prevention strategies, to share and debate ideas and to be inspired by the international media festival. The 20th World Congress on occupational health and safety in Frankfurt last month was focused on prevention. Nearly 4,000 participants from 143 countries, more people than ever before, gathered to listen to experts talk about prevention strategies, to share and debate ideas and, significantly, to watch and be inspired through the Congress’s biggest International Media Festival for Prevention so far.


Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), set the scene at the start of the congress: globally 2.3m die from work-related injury or illness.

On top of this staggering toll of misery, millions more have to cope with life changing events because risks at work were not properly controlled. And, as the secretary general of International Social Security Association (ISSA) Hans-Horst Konkolewsky pointed out, changes to the world of work are adding new challenges: globalisation is increasing the amount of informal work; workers are gradually getting older and feminine and there is a trend towards seeing the workplace as unique site for promoting health and wellbeing.

Of course, as the data from ILO shows us, facts are important. But there is a danger that when experts in this field get together they tend to reel off facts, losing sight of the individual human stories lying behind them. If we want to prevent injury and ill health then we need to show practical ways to achieve hazard awareness and show control measures as well as inspire people to adopt safe behaviours by touching our hearts and minds.

Media festival
The media festival deliberately set out to do this in the Congress’s largest output so far. As ISSA’s Martina Hesse-Spötter explained, video has a unique capacity to inform and move us. Over 30 films from nearly 300 submitted representing all parts of the world and many film techniques were selected to play during the three-day festival. Multi-media productions were also part of the festival, which included use of websites, animation, case studies and mobile apps to get prevention messages across.

The videos crossed genres of comedy, drama and fantasy. Some, including the video presented on the opening night by acting chief executive of HSE Kevin Myers, were very much focused on the voice of the victim. Another bore witness to the long struggle of a man blinded by chemicals and which through interviews and extracts from his diary, brought home the terrible consequences of one eventful moment. Others were more about the joy of working and working safely (in a riposte to those who think health and safety inhibits work), and one Angolan video followed a group of men as they sang, danced and built houses. All with a safety message.

Other videos were harder-edged and more campaigning in nature. A very striking entry from France showed young people with injuries living their lives with numbers sprayed onto them representing deaths and injury at work. The message seemed to be that deaths and injury at work often go unnoticed and unreported and the video was about giving this ‘hidden killer’ visibility.

Visual media also has the potential to overcome language barriers, a fundamental challenge for any prevention campaign with many workplaces comprising of workers from all parts of the world.

The festival had a special presentation on Napo, the series of films featuring characters facing safety issues, to celebrate its success in delivering safety messages to 177 countries. The Napo films tell very simple, animated stories with typical risk scenarios without using language – just sounds to indicate happiness, sadness or fear.

The multi-media presentations also highlighted the importance of interactivity to encourage safe behaviour, with entries from Switzerland, Sweden and The Netherlands. A designer explained how multi-media can aid learning with a game, so that a player has to reflect on the message as part of it.

The congress also hosted many leading figures from the field of occupational safety, health and wellbeing and in the Frankfurt Trade Fair it had sufficient space to accommodate symposia, technical seminars, a poster display and even a forum for exchange. Topics discussed included developing national OSH strategies, diversity in the workplace, the workplace as a site to promote wellbeing, the challenges of nanomaterials and the role of trade unions in prevention strategies.

Singapore is now inviting guests to the 21st World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in 2017.

All 290 entries to the International Media Festival can be viewed here: www.mediafestival2014.3c3c.de

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