Opinion

How a minerals sector initiative shows there’s life in tripartism

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH
Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

A central feature of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) programme to “help Great Britain work well” is the recognition that where the commitment, the collaborative working and the expertise lie is where we should look for improvements in our workplaces. 

The minerals and mineral products industry directly employs 78,000 people in the UK and turns over £20bn a year but supports 3.4 million jobs in other sectors. It is the prime enabler of the construction sector as a whole.

Recently a group of chief executives and leaders of companies, trade bodies, trade unions and other key organisations met to answer a straightforward question: what can we do to make the industry safer and healthier?

This initiative seems likely to lead to a new dynamic across the industry focused on improving safety and health performance and perhaps the formation of a new strategic leadership forum. I was a privileged participant in the meeting and it led me to reflect on one of the strengths of our national safety and health arrangements.

There is some understandable cynicism and questioning whenever a regulator explains that there are limits to its scope, its authority, its reach and impact. We know that there are quite a few employers who need to feel the heat of a regulator’s scrutiny before they act. The under-resourcing of the HSE has reduced the number and depth of site visits and inspections. The worry is that these cuts plus changes such as the introduction of fee for intervention – which can create obstacles between the expertise that the HSE offers and the willingness of employers to avail themselves of it – combine to discourage organisations to better manage workplace risks.

I have added my voice to calls to protect and defend the HSE and ensure that, despite the government’s austerity drive, we see good regulation as an investment in what we all care about: healthy, safe and productive workplaces.

There is some understandable cynicism and questioning whenever a regulator explains that there are limits to its scope

However, even if every regulator in every jurisdiction was to receive a boost to their funding in real terms, most workplaces most of the time would continue to be dependent on their own workers and managers working safely to deliver the improvements we require. The risks posed by drunken drivers will be reduced by pre- and post-accident police action, but this can only reinforce a wider social change that regards a willingness to drive when under the influence of alcohol as antisocial and irresponsible. This is the practical change, in attitudes and in culture, that has reduced the problem of drink-driving in recent years.

When the employers, workers and experts, including the HSE, come together to identify and analyse the problems in an industry and then develop practical strategies to reduce those problems, it is an approach that can raise standards significantly. Of course, the regulator will need to enforce those standards in some organisations, but most of us don’t want accidents on our watch and have accepted the argument that good health is good business and are committed to change to make improvements.

Times change and so do methods, but the tripartite approach mapped out by Lord Robens more than 40 years ago remains valid. The language may change, and some talk of “social partners”, but the principle endures and promises for the minerals sector as well as others a continued way of driving towards IOSH’s vision of a world of work that is safe and healthy.

Lawrence Waterman, OBE CFIOSH

Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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