Syria: all lives matter

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

The shocking images of three year old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the coast of Turkey when his Syrian family was fleeing war, have had an impact on people’s perception of the crisis precipitated by the civil war in Syria exacerbated by Daesh.

Although the refugee numbers are huge – two million Syrians are now in Turkey and much smaller Lebanon and Jordan are hosting even more between them – those who manage to get out of the country are in the minority. Most who have fled the fighting are not refugees but internally displaced, more than a quarter of the population, about six and a half million people.

It is difficult to think of anything more inimical to safety and health than conflict on a scale that generates this volume of people movement, but the impact of individual stories like Alan’s is to remind us that this is about real people: men, women and children, not just statistics.

The mass migration of so many people in a relatively short time has put a huge strain on them, and on the countries within refugees’ reach. It is said that when you’re in a crisis you learn who your true friends are, and anyone seeking to make political capital out of this human tragedy isn’t a friend to anyone.

But what has this to do with occupational safety and health? There are two answers, and only the first is the obvious humanitarian one.

There is something intrinsically supportive of life and the quality of life in seeking to prevent accidents and ill health. That is why many practitioners can be found in their private lives
working in the community, volunteering (even if it is only litter picking) and fundraising. There is often a coherence between what people do professionally and how they live their lives.

But there is a much more specific link. Whether the aid workers are locally employed or expatriates – and there is a much lower proportion of the latter than ever, whether they are working in long-term development projects or engaged in emergency support on the front line providing medical care in Gaza or intervening in the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, their work activities are underpinned by risk assessments.

Looking after health and safety, like charity, begins at home and ends with the whole world. It isn’t professional or effective if the people undertaking aid work are harmed because the work isn’t properly planned and managed. So organisations such as Oxfam, the Red Cross, Cafod, Save the Children and Medical Aid for Palestinians, pool knowledge on risks and how to manage them through the humanitarian network CHS Alliance.

Modern crises need careful interventions to help people. This does not involve well-meaning collections of teddy bears to be driven across Europe but the sort of aid that leads to peace where there was war, crops where there was famine, schools where there were disrupted children’s lives.

Even in extremis health and safety has a contribution to make, and we should all feel some humility at the scale of the current challenge and proud at the efforts. Those efforts represent our counter to terrorism and deliberate violence.


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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  • I don't get it? I don't

    Permalink Submitted by Pete George on 28 March 2016 - 12:37 pm

    I don't get it? I don't understand what point you are trying to make... If it's to highlight a link between Syria and H&S, or Aid workers and H&S then your links/examples are tenuous to say the least.
    As for utilising the Alan Kurdi story as the opening gambit to grab readers attention and draw them into your article, I think you'll find that your understanding of peoples perception of this incident somewhat different to yours... I have yet to bump into anyone that is not appalled at the parents actions leading up to this, irrelevant of the circumstances.
    Had you have cited lack of: education; duty of care; evaluation of risk; compassion or resource then you might have made tangible links worthy of exploration... but even then, highly unlikely!

    What's going on in Syria and similar such conflicts goes well beyond H&S because they are totally nonsensical. You cannot view, judge or make sense of them using your own values and standards... that is why we fail to find solutions, that is why innocent people get hurt, and from a Safety Practitioner perspective that is why you should avoid making H&S mileage out of a humanitarian crisis... I think it's called over-egging the pudding. I remain to be convinced otherwise.


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