Working in the 21st century and predominantly in northern Europe gives us little experience of deaths in the workplace. This is a highly desirable situation, but it can lead to complacency among the political class that makes decisions on legal minima, enforcement and penalties.
I have little patience with those who ignore the evidence that is there in UK industrial history, and current evidence from less-regulated places. Good laws – and the drive for compliance – makes good employers. As we have seen with tobacco, environmental contamination, sugar in foodstuffs and car emissions management, businesses have a tendency to focus on profit before people or planet. But good law and its enforcement can shape corporate behaviour to everyone’s benefit. Even if a business wanted to be “good” for its own reasons, the law creates a level playing field so that cowboy operators find it harder to compete unfairly.
The importance of law, enforcement, and corporate and social culture was brought home to me recently when I led an independent inquiry into a construction fatality on a site outside Europe. Many of the characteristics of workplaces in the UK that we take for granted, though they were hard fought for by campaigners, are unusual. These include: an experienced workforce with a fair idea of what “normal” looks like and is alert to change; managers who feel a sense of personal responsibility for what happens on their watch because they may be held to account; and an agreed set of minimum standards, reflecting years of developing arrangements in industry and in guidance.
Don’t focus on worker commitment, worker actions and worker blame but on the management ownership of risk and a determination to manage it effectively.
When none of these is in place, there is a palpable sense of anarchy. Terrible incidents cease to surprise; what is amazing is the success most of the time of the people who are trying hard, despite the circumstances, to avoid them. Even in badly managed operations, accidents stand out as significant and unusual events compared with the many minutes of every day when they don’t occur.
It is always instructive to work through root causes to establish what’s needed to prevent a reoccurrence. Personalising the event, becoming so bogged down in detail that all you can see are the individual actions of those directly involved, does not help. To see the bigger picture we must ask wider questions. Don’t focus on worker commitment, worker actions and worker blame but on the management ownership of risk and a determination to manage it effectively. While I was grappling with a single death in an avoidable incident, the Asian Floor Wage Alliance was reporting how little progress had been made in the working conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh three years after more than 1,100 died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory.
There is a good workplace safety record in many countries, and we are slowly getting to grips with occupational health. Around the world there are opportunities for IOSH and its many members to drive towards higher standards for all, to level upwards rather than race to the bottom. This isn’t the time to allow political dinosaurs to claim, as they did once again in their arguments against the EU, that good law is a burden on business. The truth is that, without the law, the bad businesses will be a huge burden on their workforces and all of us.