Threats to the social settlement underpinning OSH law

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

The past 12 months brought seismic political changes in the UK and US and, while it remains unclear how they will affect the management of health and safety in workplaces, we should face up to the risk.

Environmentalists are fearful of the implications of the UK leaving the EU and potentially weakening environmental protection. They also despair of President Trump’s denial of climate change and appointments of representatives of “big oil” to key positions. Safety in the workplace may not be immune from these influences.

Safety and health standards haven’t arisen in a vacuum; they are interconnected with a more general view on the value and quality of life. By subscribing to the IOSH vision of a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable, surely we also recognise that we need the wider society to be similarly safe, healthy and sustainable.

President Trump explicitly linked the Brexit vote and the US presidential election. Perhaps people who felt excluded from and ignored by political and economic discourse and decision-making found their way into right-wing, online echo chambers that resounded with “alternative facts”.

It almost seems that in a period when we are called on to reject expertise, the stories that are believed are the ones that reinforce preconceived ideas rather than provoke thought. This could put at risk what we used to take for granted, that fairness and equality were good in themselves, requiring little justification.

As a profession we work for a level of respect and compassion for individuals at work and their families. In practice, we have relied on a legal framework of workplace standards that, like our day-to-day practice, is underpinned by a strong, communitarian morality that declares that everyone is entitled, within reason, to personal safety and an absence of threats to their health.

When we rely solely on the business case for safety and health we can lose sight of this crucial aspect. The direct economic costs of workplace harm rarely fall predominantly on employers, but we can still argue for investment in prevention and for the moral case.

When we rely solely on the business case for safety and health we can lose sight of a crucial aspect 

Although some politicians claim that OSH laws are an unnecessary burden on business, we believe that it is wrong to manage work without properly managing the risks to workers and others who may be harmed.

Treating some people as “other” can lead to a broader attack on treating people as equals and risks returning us to the days when accidents to miners, for example, were regarded as simply part of the price of coal.

Modern workplace law rests on foundations established by the post-war suite of human rights statutes that some wish to water down or abolish – it is the stated policy of the UK prime minister to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights. Only through equality of treatment for all in the wider public realm can we maintain safe workplaces.

We need to ensure that human rights are defended and strengthened to successfully uphold safety and health standards. The recent rounds of populism seem to threaten that.


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.


  • Great article. As Health and

    Permalink Submitted by Sue Tantush on 1 March 2017 - 11:42 am

    Great article. As Health and Safety Professionals it's so true that we do end up using the business case to justify investment in training, equipment expenditure etc but in the end, it's all about the people and we should continue to drive this message as the one that really counts!


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