The work of health and safety practitioners is always changing, of course whether it’s responding to threats from governments who understand price but not value, or changes in work that means that psychological stress rises in one place while silicosis in young men employed to spray sand on denim to “stone wash” jeans (true fashion victims) arises somewhere else.
This column will try to keep an eye on what is happening locally and globally, commenting on the 24 murder suspects in Pakistan who absconded as the 2013 Rana Plaza case (involving more than 1,100 fatalities) was due in court, updating readers on the continuing campaign for the victims of the Bhopal industrial accident that blighted a community in 1984, and how HSE’s search for revenue is affecting its practice.
It will also track examples of positive developments like those making construction sites safer across Europe and campaigns such as IOSH’s No Time to Lose call to reduce work-related cancers.
Our efforts at work take place in a more general context of social values and politics. Health and safety practice for most of its life - in health since Barnardino Ramazzani originated occupational medicine in the 17th Century, in UK workplaces since the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 - has reasonably focused on preventing harm. When we look at the statistics around the world, that has to remain the priority; thousands of workers have died in China in recent years in both mining accidents and from exposure to pesticides - in Europe pesticide deaths are very few, and typically suicides.
But there is a change in the developed western nations of Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan, where the methods for preventing harm at work are beginning also to be routinely applied to enhance wellbeing rather than just to protect. The expertise associated with communication, motivation, consultation is well placed to contribute to efforts to create healthy workplaces, with informed people better able to make their own lifestyle decisions to live longer and healthier, and employers are recognising that this also improves the atmosphere at work, raises productivity and makes it easier to recruit and retain good staff.
That fits a wider society that despite the current terrorist threats, is generally safer, more secure and enables many people to focus on what sort of life they wish to lead rather than just surviving. But that only applies to the better-off in wealthier countries. For others, the existential threats remain whether it’s trying to live or escape from war zones - and those refugees who brave the hardships of incredible journeys deserve sympathy and care, not being referred to as a “swarm” or “vermin”, or to manage on zero-hours contracts, where speaking out about working conditions risks victimisation in which those hours become zero indeed if they’re sacked.
How well we can work professionally and how effective we are depends in part on our technical expertise, but also how good we are at navigating the social world we operate in. I hope that you feel it is worth exploring that interaction.