Opinion

A new consensus

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Once again our International Safety Awards ceremony on 5 May reminded me of the great value of bringing people together to share success and keep up the momentum to deliver safer and healthier workplaces.


Momentum is important because we know there are real barriers to good health and safety, where success is often achieved against the prevailing consensus. I have heard stories of discouragement, arguments over investment or lack of will from the top.

Consensus is powerful and can determine whether a course of action is worth pursuing or not. It does so not by persuading safety and health practitioners that something is right or wrong, but by the weight it places on those who want to change things for the better; a weight that can seem too great to even bother trying. I have heard people say that when it comes to mental health, don’t expect any new laws or any new legal obligations to intervene in this area. Don’t even try to campaign or lobby for it, it’s not worth it.

Such was the consensus. Yet, in this election period, where old certainties are being cast off and new ideas are making newspaper headlines, it seems that at least one manifesto will contain a pledge for first aid regulations to specifically refer to mental illness. If achieved, this could give some kind of parity of esteem around first aid. I’ve no doubt that how we think about the role of regulation for tackling the crippling burden of mental ill health is now up for debate.

Since starting at the British Safety Council I have wanted us to speak out and do more to tackle health and, in particular, mental health. The reasons are clear: for every working day lost due to an accident, six are lost due to health issues, of which nearly half relate to mental as opposed to physical health. As I said at our recent awards ceremony, addressing the link between work, mental health and wellbeing is the challenge for risk management in the 21st century, a claim that will require some innovative thinking about the legal obligations we put on those best placed to manage these kinds of risks. 

Even a year ago, consensus would have probably ruled much of this out. At a time of tight resources for employers and for the regulator and a job market in flux, the convention would have been to forget any new laws or change beyond the superficial. However, for both political and evidential reasons, the debate has changed: for the latter the sheer cost of ill health and the loss of productivity is making people take notice. In sum the consensus is changing. Not that this means a deluge of new regulations, but there is certainly a greater appetite for regulatory fixes where the market is seen as failing. The good health of the workforce is one area that the market is certainly failing to deliver.

This more interventionist approach does make you think about where other changes to existing laws could be made or news laws are required. At the British Safety Council we have always listened to our members’ views and appreciated their critical insights into business realities.

We want to hear your views on this matter so please do get in touch. It is an exciting time; a time for fresh thinking and passion to maintain our strong health and safety record, as the ‘new normal’ becomes the new consensus. 

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