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Addressing core health and safety issues in a financial crisis

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Health & safety in a financial crisisCurrent health and safety figures hide the losses to people and employers, says Lawrence Waterman, who warns that the new statistics show a worrying plateau of injuries.


At first glance, the most recent data on ill health, injuries and working days lost from work look reassuring. Fatalities are down, injuries are at about the same level as last year, and ill health seems fairly stable. But when interrogated, the statistics tell a very different story. The cost of getting health and safety in the workplace wrong represents billions of pounds at a time when the economy and organisations should be making all the savings they can. The numbers are in fact a call to action and not support for a complacent ‘business as usual’ attitude.

“Workers in the UK have a one in 100 chance every year of being injured.”

There are two lessons to be gleaned from the latest and recently published annual set of data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the regulator for occupational health and safety. Firstly, we really aren’t doing enough to minimise business losses and personal harm. Secondly, organisations will need to sharpen their act if they are to improve matters, to gain the business and people benefits that accrue from investing wisely in safety and wellbeing.

In 2007–2008, 229 workers were killed at work, and although this is a slight reduction on the previous year, the rate has pretty much stayed the same for the past five or six years.

Serious injury

A similar picture emerges with reportable injuries. According to a survey of workers regarded as providing a better, more honest picture than employer reports (some employers simply don’t report accidents in their workplace even though this is illegal), workers in the UK have a one in 100 chance every year of being injured seriously enough to fall into the reportable categories. For those working what was a traditional working life, of around 45 years, that means a 50% chance of suffering such an injury at work.

Ill health is an even worse story. For every working day lost to a workplace injury – about 6 million of them last year – over four days are lost to work-related ill health. That’s not colds and flu, but ill health caused by or made worse by exposures to health risks in the workplace. That means, for example, dermatitis, hand arm vibration syndrome, musculo-skeletal problems and other diseases of modern work.

The 28 million days lost due to work-related ill health are only the tip of the iceberg. In the current climate, many workers are at work in body if not in spirit – what is sometimes clumsily called presenteeism. So the productivity impact of ill health is far greater than simply the days taken off work sick, there are all the ‘under-the-weather’ days at work which result in poor performance but are not counted in the published data.

The result is that work-related ill health is still too high, and the statistics show that the government won’t meet its reduction target so accidents and injuries are stubbornly stuck on a plateau representing real losses. So what can businesses do to affect change?

Business investment

It is time to stop simply repeating what we have already been doing. As Forest Gump said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. In the current financial climate it is also essential to regard efforts on health and safety as a proper business investment that should provide a satisfactory return.

“In the current financial climate it is essential to regard efforts on health and safety as a proper business investment that should provide a satisfactory return.”

That means making better use of resources, and targeting effort where it will unlock the creativity and commitment of colleagues. Health and safety can, if properly managed, represent a contribution to make organisations leaner, fitter, more productive and effective. This is very different from a compliance with the law model based on telling people what they cannot do, this is all about enabling excellence to emerge and flourish from within the organisation.

One example of a smarter, rather than harder, way of working on health and safety improvement programmes is engaging the workforce properly. Both through real, dynamic consultation and behaviour-changing efforts that encourage activities such as near miss reporting (early warnings of something going wrong before it causes real harm) can turn any organisation from having one or two professional health and safety people into those where every worker takes responsibility. If this becomes part of an empowerment programme, you can end up with a dynamic that goes far beyond what individual managers can achieve on their own.

So think about suggestion schemes, ways of recognising and rewarding efforts which result in safer and more efficient ways of working. Really try to get to grips with injuries and ill health at work and you will be fitter to weather the recession as well. But don’t expect to achieve this with ‘one more push’ – you will have to do new things in new ways. Don’t be afraid of working with expert advisers who have experience in helping transform performance. After all, improving the stats in health and safety is not so very different from improving your bottom line.

Key statistics:

The Health and Safety Executive statistics for 2007/08 show:

Ill health
* 2.1 million people were suffering from work-related illnesses

Injuries
* Over 136,000 workers suffered injuries such as amputations, burns or fractures

Working days lost
* 34 million working days were lost in Great Britain due to injury and ill health (28 million due to work-related ill health and 6 million due to workplace injury).

Fatalities
* 229 people were killed at work

Enforcement
* 1,028 offences were prosecuted by HSE
* 354 offences were prosecuted by local authorities

The new statistics can be found at: www.hse.gov.uk


Lawrence Waterman is chairman of Sypol, a health and safety consultancy

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