Dealing with the “slow accidents” of exposure to harmful agents that may take years to express themselves in ill health is a sensible, rational response to the evidence.
But hang on a minute, what’s all this stuff about wellbeing? Organisations that have one-third of work-related ill health attributed to musculoskeletal disorders and another one-third to stress-related mental incapacity, suddenly decide to take health action and begin poster campaigns on the importance of five portions of fruit and veg a day. At board level, heart conditions among staff are discussed for the first time.
As safety and health professionals, we need to take a clear view on such sudden switches from ignoring health to going overboard and saying “I care so much about my workers that we’re going to run smoking cessation classes and subsidise gym membership”.
Employees’ health has a significant bearing on their work performance and their sickness levels. The workplace is the ideal place to provide information on how people can maintain a healthy body and mind – which is in everyone’s interest. But individual resilience is not the foundation of an employer’s responsibility to the workforce, though resilience is the buzzword heard at almost every conference now and the subject of much research.
Healthy heart’ campaigns, however worthy, should not be the underpinning of any focus on health
Shifting responsibility on to the worker to be more resilient can be a way to pass the buck for employee protection. Doing nothing about a bullying organisation with unrealistic work schedules for staff on zero-hours contracts except running stress resilience classes is not acceptable.
The employer that brings together the workers, the workplace, the materials, the equipment and the work processes has an obligation to manage the risks that arise – risks to health as well as safety. That, and not “healthy heart” campaigns, however worthy, should underpin any focus on health. Our workplaces are creating the next generation of workers with lung disease from dust inhalation and asthmatics because of their inadequately-controlled exposure to airborne sensitisers. We still allow young people to enter workplaces that cause noise-induced hearing loss, hand-arm vibration syndrome and, above all, mental distress and
Wellbeing programmes have their place; they are valuable in themselves and are an effective way to engage a diverse workforce. We saw this at the London 2012 Olympics construction programme, when a campaign to encourage workers to have breakfast, with an emphasis on porridge, raised all sorts of questions about obesity and diabetes as well as the impact of low blood sugar on construction operatives’ concentration and its contribution to accidents. Talking to people about their health reinforced the efforts we were making to manage the work risks through good occupational hygiene.
Safety and health professionals should help keep wellbeing programmes in perspective and in their place as a contribution to an OSH strategy. We should not allow a new enthusiasm for doing something about health to distract us into ignoring the fundamental responsibility of employers to provide safe and healthy places of work.