OSH in a changing world

Recalibration data

The fruits of a five-year IOSH research programme analyse how work has changed, and point the ways practitioners can adapt to a new world. 


Words: Louis Wustemann

Globalisation, information technology, networked organisations, the customer service culture, western de-industrialisation, reduced tariff barriers. The business world has changed substantially in recent decades. Have OSH regulation and management kept up? If not, what do they need to do to adjust to the new world of work?

These were the spurs for a major research programme commissioned by IOSH in 2010 from five teams of academics. Already published online 
(www.iosh.co.uk/changingworld), the findings will shortly be published in summary form in a book, Health and Safety in a Changing World, edited by IOSH research programme director Robert Dingwall and executive director of policy Shelley Frost.

The six interlinked studies were chosen after an open competition, judged by IOSH’s research committee.

“We looked outside the profession,” says Dingwall, “to get the views of people who were knowledgeable and sympathetic but not wedded to the profession’s vision of itself.”

He says the studies, for which the academics carried out literature reviews, focus groups, direct observations and hundreds of interviews, explore two main themes:

  • how the past has shaped the present (“how did we get here?”)
  • the context in which the profession works and how it can adapt to new conditions.

Legitimate concern

Does the public have a problem with health and safety? This question heads the book’s first chapter, summarising a study of the “legitimacy” of safety and health which examines the extent of OSH practitioners’ “social licence” to operate and attitudes towards increased regulation. The authors, Mike Esbester, senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth, and Paul Almond, Professor of law at the University of Reading, give a mixed answer to the question. 

Reassuringly, their research finds general approval for the intervention of law and the work of OSH practitioners. “These are issues that matter to ordinary people,” they say, “particularly when there are serious consequences or risks involved. A moral argument for safety regulation is widely recognised.”

But officiousness by those enforcing safety rules, the perceived growth of a compensation culture and the development of a sense of “health and safety” as an excuse to interfere with freedom rather than just ensure protection of the vulnerable, alienate the public.

They say this alienation may have been fed by the extension of the scope of safety and health management beyond the workplace and into private life.

“The parameters of this ‘social safety’ agenda have been heavily contested,” they note. “There is some evidence that it has prompted the public and media backlash against health and safety in recent years.”

Those the researchers canvassed respected the expertise of OSH practitioners and regulators but questioned their ability to communicate that expertise to lay people.

Esbester and Almond emphasise the need for those involved in safety and health to engage with the wider world and carry public opinion with them. “Selling” safety and health involves appealing to the public’s deeper-seated attitudes rather than its more fleeting opinions, so “it is not essential to leap in and contest every regulatory myth”, but safety and health successes should be shared more widely.

They suggest that, to extend OSH legitimacy, practitioners should share basic risk management understanding with people in management and supervisory positions, workers should be consulted systematically on OSH issues, and those responsible for safety and health should encourage a questioning attitude.

“Participation and engagement at the level of individual employees, workplaces and citizens are vital if the tendency of the health and safety system towards insularity and the growing problems of political legitimacy are to be offset,” they conclude.

Law and after

In the second study, Stavroula Leka, Professor of work, health and policy at the University of Nottingham, and colleagues trace the evolution of OSH regulation and deregulation in the UK.

The Health and Safety at Work (HSW) Act, and the regulations that flowed from it, swept away the previous patchy OSH law focused on heavy industry in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, the Single European Act and the OSH Framework Directive led to a new layer of regulation intended to harmonise standards of worker protection and consultation among the then 15 EU member states.

Leka’s team traces a deregulatory agenda in the UK that arguably started with the general requirement in the HSW Act for dutyholders to control risk, which replaced the more prescriptive specifications of the factories acts. They suggest that OSH practitioners have not always embraced the flexibility in the non-prescriptive risk-control approach adopted by the 1974 act and have sought prescriptive standards to follow instead.

In the early 1990s the Conservative government launched a deregulation initiative. Requirements for impact assessments of the effect on business were introduced for both EU and UK legislation.

This agenda continued in the early 2000s under the succeeding Labour administration, with the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 and later the Hampton Review of regulatory burdens. It accelerated with two OSH regulatory reviews under the coalition government in 2010 and 2011 by Lord Young and Professor Ragnar Löfstedt.

The authors note this deregulatory trend has been accompanied by a ramping up of sanctions for those who break the laws that remain, through the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 and a new corporate manslaughter offence. (The research was completed too early for the inclusion of the new sentencing guidelines for OSH offences, introduced in February 2016.)

To these trends they add successive budget cuts for the enforcement bodies – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities – and successive HSE strategies, increasing reliance on industry to improve standards rather than placing responsibility with the regulators. 

Non-governmental stakeholders, ranging from insurance companies to member organisations (including IOSH), and industry bodies have become more involved in setting OSH standards and providing advice.

Concern about corporate reputation has grown, and the researchers found it was the second-most important driver of OSH performance after regulatory compliance.

Considering the status and role of the OSH profession against this background, the authors say it must seek to influence regulation and standards to ensure they are evidence-based.

OSH practitioners’ education should continue to emphasise risk evaluation and control but should also include softer skills to help them persuade organisations of their business cases. 

On the issue of legitimacy, they echo Esbester and Almond in saying practitioners and their representative bodies must be better self-publicists, celebrating their successes through social media.

A little knowledge

The way practitioners form and use professional knowledge was investigated by Dr Joanne Crawford and a team from the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh. The starting point for their analysis is that “knowledge is more than merely data or information”. Raw data are processed and turned into information and help refine knowledge. In the 1960s, for example, cases of asbestos-related diseases among women came to light. These data led to research that traced the causes to gas mask manufacture in the 1930s and 1940s, providing information that overturned a medical assumption that only men contracted illnesses related to the material and helped to refine the knowledge of asbestos control.

The researchers distinguish between explicit knowledge gained from information in technical sources, such as textbooks, codes of practice and accident reports, and tacit knowledge gleaned from performing a task. Much tacit knowledge comes from experience but it can also be cognitive, they argue: “An experienced health and safety practitioner can walk into many different situations and identify potential generic hazards and management strategies without needing context-specific expertise. This is sometimes described as ‘professional vision’.”

Tacit knowledge of risks can be studied and turned into explicit knowledge, transferable to others: “Studies of the aviation industry have created explicit knowledge about high-reliability organisations that has been taken into healthcare in an effort to improve patient safety.”

Competent OSH professionals are an important conduit for refining the explicit knowledge in guidance, innovative practice and a host of other sources into forms from which their organisations can benefit.

Dingwall says the OSH profession grew up in hazardous sectors where explicit knowledge, translated into carefully-policed codes and instructions, is the only way to work safely – “you don’t want people improvising”, he says.

Though those industries and requirements still exist, the western industrial model has shifted to one where more workers are at risk of musculoskeletal problems from component assembly than from burns caused by molten steel spills. In these less hazardous occupations, tacit knowledge from those on the job may contribute as much to risk management as codes and guidance.

Controlled improvisation

Another study, by Professor Alistair Gibb and colleagues at Loughborough University, examined knowledge transfer in supply chains and networked organisations. The academics studied logistics companies, healthcare trusts and construction firms and found that workers in lower-risk jobs often adapted working practices to protect themselves without direct instruction. 

The authors suggest OSH practitioners could learn from and support this approach: “Rather than trying to manage uncertainty by increasingly detailed and prescriptive regulation, it may be more productive to concentrate on supporting and enabling workers to become more skilful at improvising methods of achieving safety goals.”

They distinguish between these improvised “workarounds” and unsafe shortcuts, arguing frontline workers often create the former to stay safe and accommodate other demands such as production targets or customer demands.

The suggestion that practitioners and regulators should recognise that many workarounds are genuine attempts to comply with the spirit rather than the letter of regulations re-occurs in another of the programme’s studies, which examines the engagement of small businesses in safety and health management.

Practitioners need to ensure that they are drawing on these direct, tacit sources of knowledge as well as the more conventional conduits of explicit knowledge and that protective measures take account of the other pressures on workers. 

Dingwall says this emphasis on the value of consulting and learning from the workers “on the tools” was one of the standout messages of the research project.

Crawford’s team emphasises the difference between how information and knowledge is transmitted and how it is received.

“Communication strategies should always start from the perspective of the intended recipient,” they say. “Asking how can knowledge best be absorbed, rather than how can it be provided.”

“Rich” face-to-face communication methods were judged highly effective in the research.

Gibb and colleagues found there were people who were important sources of information in each networked structure. These could be “brokers” who connect different layers of the network, or “champions” or “keenies” who had extra training or interest in OSH matters and acted as informal knowledge hubs.

They found that in established networks OSH knowledge is often shared in a “temporary network of relationships rather than a stable, integrated and continuing structure”.

Health and safety interventions must be designed to fit with the competing pressures of other legitimate organisational goals, such as customer or user safety and satisfaction, Crawford’s team argues.

Alt leadership

Dr Colin Pilbeam, senior research fellow at the Cranfield School of Management, and colleagues Dr Noeleen Doherty and Professor David Denyer contributed a study on leadership. Their chapter begins by observing that safety leadership has been the subject of much research by academics, promotion by OSH membership bodies and calls from policymakers for organisations to provide more of it. 

“This continued attention to safety leadership suggests both that it is important and that it is difficult to achieve,” say the researchers.

On the reasons for this difficulty, they highlight the fact that OSH professionals have a “defensive agenda” of accident and ill health prevention that contrasts with the dynamism of their peers chasing higher sales or production improvements.

Organisations may also under-rate the probability of accidents and see OSH interventions as costly and excessive, or prescriptive because they are limited by regulation.

“Unlike other specialist roles that have acquired leadership status, like IT leadership or sales leadership,” they say, “safety is not functionally-based and its performance target is rarely set in financial terms. As a consequence, safety may not be seen as integral to the performance of the organisation.”

They define the primary aim of safety leadership as the prevention of non-trivial accidents and injuries and the second as the encouragement of safe behaviour. In their own study of 11 retailers, they found employees identified everyone as having safety responsibilities but also marked out supervisors and managers or safety and health advisers as having special duties.

They trace the history of official guidance, suggesting all employees have safety leadership duties and argue this approach presents two, almost contradictory, problems.

“First, if safety is the responsibility of a leader, and everybody is potentially a leader, then there is a real risk that nobody will show leadership, and simply assume that somebody else will take responsibility […] Second, by emphasising ‘safety leadership’, safety becomes a separate stand-alone activity carried out by specialists.”

Safety leadership dominated first by transactional practice – such as ensuring PPE is supplied and worn – that pursues the primary aim of accident prevention and also by transformational practice, praising good performance and setting individual example, that promotes the second goal of safe behaviour. 

“While these may be relevant to more hierarchical organisations, or where there is a heavy emphasis on supervisory control,” Pilbeam’s team suggests, “they may be much less applicable in networked organisations or where there is a dominance of professional workers.”

There are models other than a command-and-control style, one being plural leadership. Better suited to networked organisations and low-hazard industries, this model shares out leadership responsibilities and requires teamworking, negotiation and listening skills among those involved.

Another is adaptive leadership, which recognises that “[lack of] safety is a problem that arises from the multiple interactions between both human and technological components of a system”.  This model requires standing back and analysing the status quo carefully, watching for changes and supporting others to devise solutions to problems caused by change.

A positive outlook

In their conclusion to the book, Dingwall and Frost synthesise the findings of the research and call for OSH pratcitioners to reset their aims to what they were when they went into the profession. These aims can be distorted over time by low expectations of employers and increasing “blue tape” bureaucracy from insurers or other stakeholders.

“Ask any health and safety professional about the beginnings of their personal journey into the profession,” they say. “What you will hear is a passion for protecting life and eliminating harm that has become entangled with the administration of a set of laws and regulations.”

If they can re-establish that primary aim, the editors argue that OSH practitioners will be better able to adapt to and serve the more networked organisations and rely less on the command-and-control leadership style the studies identify as dominating the past decades.

Practitioners’ commitment to safety as a positive virtue in itself rather than just a matter of compliance can serve organisations concerned about their reputations, say the editors.

They can build on their commitment and on the technical knowledge and expertise that is the foundation of their practice by adding softer skills, such as negotiating techniques and the new leadership skills identified by the teams from Loughborough and Cranfield.  

Frost and Dingwall point out that the IOSH Blueprint competency framework is designed to help individuals identify where they have gaps in such skills and support them in filling these.

“Our research programme underlines the need for the safety and health profession to be agile and open-minded in the face of change,” says Frost, “and more confident in promoting the very many positive contributions it makes to our lives.”

Dingwall says the vision of OSH practitioners as “people who shape the development of processes  and are partners in that development” is a positive one. “It’s a more creative vision of the profession,” he says.

Excerpts from Health and Safety in a Changing World will feature in the next two issues of IOSH Magazine



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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