Sticking to evidence-based decisions even when politicians and voters don't

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

Trying to understand the evidence behind decisions is sometimes confusing. At a time when the UK is negotiating itself out of the largest global trading block, some politicians reassure us that this means that we can forge trading links with many more countries.

People in Louisiana are among the highest risk groups for cancer, largely attributable to local, polluting industries, yet they voted overwhelmingly for Trump and his policy of emasculating the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the firing of the general election starting gun, we all wait for new UK grammar schools promoted by the prime minister on the ground of increasing social mobility, when research suggests that selection for education reinforces existing social status. Wherever you look, the evidence appears to point in the opposite direction to the behaviour.

But before criticising others, we need to cast the beams out of our own eyes. Though we have talked about evidence-based practice for years, we continue to do some things the way that we feel is correct rather than what we know is effective.

That is why research is so important to safety and health practitioners. The trouble is that we don’t always feel that we have the time to keep up to date, despite the encouragement of continuing professional development requirements and the work of publications such as this magazine and IOSH’s research journal, Policy and Practice.

Though we have talked about evidence-based practice for years, we continue to do some things the way that we feel is correct

As well as networking – a very professional, cultured way of describing meeting up with old friends and having a few drinks – conferences, seminars and IOSH branch meetings do offer ways to touch base with some of the work carried out by researchers, measuring the impacts and outcomes of different initiatives.

My favourite research report is a meta-analysis published by the HSE called Preconditioning for Success (bit.ly/2ojZVZ5). In this a Loughborough University team identified key aspects of projects, and by extension organisations, that make excellent safety and health performance more likely. Focusing on the London 2012 Olympics construction programme, this research has created a very useful review tool for any major project or company wishing to operate at the highest level. It has become a challenge: “how do you measure up on the ‘preconditioning’ scale?”

Of course, evidence isn’t everything. I was reminded of this at a film night organised by the British Safety Council to mark the beginning of a year marking its diamond jubilee. Run for more than 30 years by the publicist and campaigner James Tye, the organisation took up causes from preventing lorries jack-knifing and mandating vehicle seatbelt use to making efforts that contributed to the Robens Report and the Health and Safety at Work Act.

There are no easy measurables that fully define what the council has achieved over its 60 years, but there must be many people alive and uninjured because of its efforts; those brassy campaigns really did seem to raise awareness and generate commitment to change.

Though not fully evidence-based, I think we are fully justified in wishing it a happy birthday and continued success in reducing accidents and ill health.



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.


  • Why does the editor let you

    Permalink Submitted by Chris Treloar on 28 April 2017 - 07:35 pm

    Why does the editor let you weave your political bias into your column? Paragraphs 1 -3 These should be challenged. Surely IOSH is platform for the good of safety as a voice of reasoning and innovation for the good? To your defence you did get there in the end Yet you use this column to deliver quite unfounded and at best spurious propaganda of politics of your own view point. It is tedious. Of your favourite report were you anything to do with the London olympic delivery? You just could not resist a piece of self congratulation. There is one question that has piqued my curiosity. Did you attend a Grammar/ private school?
    It is very much looking like that I will be returning to my usual modus of skipping this column.


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