Though we no longer see demonstrations on the scale of the Million Man March in Washington, DC, in 1995 on African American issues or, further back, the 1908 suffragette rally of up to 500,000 in Hyde Park, amplification by the media brings to our attention all sorts of smaller protests, such as the recent Women’s March for gender equality, or the tens of thousands opposing austerity at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last autumn.
But we don’t take to the streets for safety and health. We concentrate on our day jobs – the detailed work briefing and training, assessing and controlling risks, developing contingency plans, preparing for workplace changes. Campaigning is not our profession’s primary means of effecting change but campaigns can help us to recruit support for action and communicate new or little heard messages. They can trigger what the physicist Thomas Kuhn called “a paradigm shift”, making us look at issues in a different way.
IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign is a good example of developing some important messages and consistently conveying them, asking for specific actions to be taken, to help to raise an issue – that of occupational cancer – that has had too little attention, given the large number of lives it affects. Campaigns can shake us out of our complacency, arguing powerfully that things can and should be different, that what we have accepted as “normal” simply doesn’t have to be that way.
Historically, safety and health was an issue raised by the trade unions. The conditions their members endured at work has always been of concern and an effective unifying force across disparate workplaces.
The campaigns for controls over working hours marked the beginning of the world’s first OSH regulations, and today unions such as Unite campaign on silica dust exposure, asbestos, diesel fumes and many other hazards. Without such campaigning, challenging the status quo of “acceptable” workplace conditions, there wouldn’t be tens of thousands of practitioners advising workers and their employers on compliance (and better) with safety and health laws around the world.
A dissatisfaction with the numbers of people injured or made ill by their work is what motivates OSH professionals
The Irish trade union leader James Larkin was once asked what his ambition was and he replied that it was to help to make working people dissatisfied with their conditions. In a way, a dissatisfaction with the numbers of people injured or made ill by their work and a conviction that the harm is preventable is what motivates OSH professionals and we seek to persuade others to see the opportunities to improve things. That is what campaigns seek to do on a grand scale.
In an era of political uncertainty, when the standards fought for many years are denigrated as simply “unnecessary red tape”, perhaps we need to renew our campaigning zeal in safety and health. As the newly appointed chair of the British Safety Council, that is what I shall be trying to do with the body that had a key part to play in the introduction of mandatory car seat belts and devices to prevent articulated lorries jack-knifing.
This is my last column in IOSH Magazine, but the arguments and the campaigning will continue because it is how we shall mobilise others to achieve a world of work that is healthy and safe. We may not meet on the streets to defend workers’ rights to go home safe and sound after each working day but participating in health and safety improvements involves both the day job and campaigning.