There can be no doubt that we are currently in the midst of a generally uncertain era, which could well prove to be a defining period both for the UK and globally.
The ever-changing political landscapes across the world, advancements in technology, an increasingly ageing workforce and flexible working patterns are presenting new challenges, not only around health and safety but on a wider scale.
It is therefore concerning to note that the latest provisional figures published recently by the HSE of 144 people killed in workplace accidents across all sectors in 2017 –18 confirms an increase in such events for the first time in many years.
Can this really be attributed to – as the HSE has cautioned – “recognised annual fluctuations” or is this actually indicative of a more worrying culmination of wider causal societal factors?
Continual improvements in occupational health and safety management practice over many years within the UK, supported by a robust legislative framework implemented and monitored by suitably resourced regulatory bodies, undoubtedly were primary factors in a consistent downward trend in respect of workplace fatalities.
The improved recognition among the more progressive organisations of the importance of good health and safety management and the benefits that were subsequently achieved, have rightly become an accepted part of sound business practice across all sectors.
However, the past five years have seen this downward trend in workplace fatalities somewhat plateau and now actually increase.
During this period, we have seen an aggressive government deregulatory programme, the introduction of a somewhat controversial fee for intervention scheme, state funding of the HSE reduced by almost 50 per cent, austerity programmes affecting public service resources – the emergency services included – and now the uncertainty presented by Brexit and, as a consequence, the recently introduced Health and Safety (amendments) (EU exit) regulations 2018.
It may be considered somewhat simplistic to conclude a direct correlation between the aforementioned factors and the impact on workplace fatality and ill-health rates, and there is no doubt that some positive consequences of deregulation have been well received.
The introduction of revised sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences and a new international standard for occupational health and safety management systems – ISO 45001 – with explicit requirements placed on top management in respect of leadership, commitment and the integration of health and safety management across strategic business planning, has been long overdue and will certainly enhance the workplace environment for those organisations that adopt this standard.
A strong emphasis on the importance of recognising, managing and supporting employee health and wellbeing, including a much more enlightened attitude toward mental health, is also a very contemporary and welcome development in the health and safety arena.
However, the foundations on which these improved systems and behaviours at all levels have been based are worryingly under threat from the wider implications of a changing UK and international environment. The ongoing inquiry – together with the Hackitt report – into the aftermath of the recent terrible fire at Grenfell in West London has already highlighted catastrophic failures – both systematic and behavioural – which could have wider implications in the resourcing of public services and regulatory bodies, for example.
We must not allow the significant advances in the recognition, adoption and implementation of the importance of good health and safety management across all sectors of industry and commerce to become undermined by either complacency or ideologically motivated programmes.
Although it has become almost a throwaway ‘strapline’ over the years, good health and safety really is good business practice!
David Parr is director of policy and technical services at the British Safety Council
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