The next few months could be an opportunity for a health and safety review. Incorporating wellbeing in the workplace is one positive step towards minimising avoidable and costly work-related ill health. Jon Herbert looks at the key issues.
Safe and healthy at work
How do you really improve health and safety at work?
Creating a culture that fundamentally alters people’s basic behaviour and attitudes to the workplace is, arguably, the single most important thing you can do. There are obviously limits to how far repeated slogans, pep talks and continuous reminders will go. However, digging into the roots of individual behaviour could help deliver the last few percentage points of improvement.
This is where the divide remains between safety and health.
Why is this an issue now? Well, the last set of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics showed that some 31 million UK working days were lost during 2016–17 due to work-related illnesses and non-fatal workplace injuries. Other respected sources calculate this total to be even higher and attribute thousands of deaths each year to work-related ill health.
Of course, work can be beneficial. The case is increasingly being made that work is good for our wellbeing, providing the job is varied and in the individual’s control, and does not expose him or her to physical or psychological harm. Studies show that, financial rewards aside, work can enhance both psychological and physical health — and therefore wellbeing. See our Wellbeing topic for detailed information on options and best practice.
Even so, the HSE figures have also shown that nearly 50% of UK business leaders feel too little is being done to resolve the causes of work-related ill health; and more than 40% of companies are facing rises in long-term ill health.
The general conclusion is that while legislation has improved workplace safety significantly, health management has not been nearly so successful.
Improving wellbeing in construction
The construction sector is proving to be one of the worst cases.
Several reasons have been suggested for particularly poor health, safety and wellbeing figures in the construction industry, including the large numbers of transitory workers. You can imagine eyes glazing over at yet another health and safety induction. Meanwhile, there is a suspicion that some of the smaller companies are less committed to health and safety principles. Further improvements, it is suggested, must come from really understanding how people feel about the work and jobs — a potentially tough nut to crack.
In construction, this means moving away from its traditional macho culture. Evidence has shown that the increasing presence of women in the North Sea oil and gas industry over the past two decades quickly marginalised cavalier attitudes to safety. Would more women in the sector change attitudes to health? See our features Urgent: female engineers and executives needed, Gender in construction and Women in safety.
In the highly fragmented construction sector, where driving costs down is a constant priority, such changes could be more difficult. There are also less obvious factors. The HSE figures show that nearly 20% of reported work-related illnesses result from stress due to long hours, depression often caused or intensified by long periods of separation from family members, plus general feelings of anxiety linked to job security fears. It is thought that suicide figures in the sector could be as much as 10 times higher than average sector work fatality figures.
As mental ill health becomes a growing problem throughout the working world, the union Unite encourages its members to become mental first aiders and ensure that all workers have someone they can talk to about personal issues. Companies need to take the same route in providing a sympathetic listening ear and signposting the way to professional support. Similarly, they should look at paving the way for a supported return to work where time off has been necessary, such as with flexible or part-time working.
Improving but not reaching target zero
To be scrupulously accurate, 2016–17 construction fatality figures at 30 were among the lowest ever. But the last residual band of incidents is proving hard to bring down to the “zero” level many large contractors are pledged to meet.
A study in greater depth found among other things that the mechanisms of minor and major accidents are not the same and eliminating the first does not automatically reduce the second. Organisations are realising that it can be more fruitful to focus on preventing major incidents and fatalities than setting out to end all incidents and possible incidents.
Ownership and communication
It is also important to create an environment where workers feel confident about reporting near-misses and close calls, knowing that they will be heard. Unite believes that many workers let things go for fear of being marked as a troublemaker. In the UK, we still largely have a top-down culture that doesn’t pick up on points best identified by employees at the sharp end. Engagement is a cornerstone in doing things differently: staff should be encouraged to stop if they feel something is wrong and not leave it as someone else’s problem; promote taking ownership and talking issues through to a satisfactory conclusion. The same principles and rules apply to supply chains.
Experience shows that many accidents and incidents are due to basic rules infringements, such as speeding or using mobile devices when driving, plus working thoughtlessly at heights and with electricity. This is often more of a problem in small firms — fatality rates for the self-employed in construction are also more than twice those for staff employees.
While health and safety at work generally continues to improve, achieving the zero-incident levels that many large companies have set themselves, in which no one is harmed at work, depends on creating a new culture around work in general.
There is also a divide between safety, where legislation in driving performance improvements, and health where many ill health work-related issues are going unrecognised and untreated to the detriment of employees, the economy and businesses themselves.
Working to, first, embed health and safety into the very culture of the organisation and, second, put into place a robust health and wellbeing policy is a good place to start.
Published by Croneri on 3 October 2018