High talk in Singapore

Last month, many of the world’s leaders in health and safety gathered in Singapore for the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work 2017.

And like Singapore City itself, the congress, in providing an opportunity for people to meet and trade ideas about latest developments in risks, was facing the future with optimism. The danger is that in modernising the rhetoric we can fool ourselves that we are having an actual impact on people’s lives.

The congress was focussed on ‘prevention’ and ‘vision zero’. Consensus, ranging from the heads of the International Labour Organisation to the Singaporean prime minister, all made the not-uncontested claim that accidents are preventable and that zero deaths are achievable.

This confidence did not seem dented by how the recent past makes itself stubbornly present in the 2.78 million workers who died last year from work-related activities.

And the numbers are not going down. The 17th Congress in 2005 reported that 2.2 million people died through work.

Nonetheless, the optimistic tone continued through the opening speeches with the launch of ISSA’s Vision Zero campaign, a celebration uplifted by waving flags and bright visuals.

Beneath the glitzy exterior, though, many of the proposed solutions will be familiar: adequate laws and inspector-led enforcement, worker engagement and culture change through leadership and training.

Positive slogans captured the optimistic tone at Singapore's World Congress on Safety and Health

The problem is that these tried and tested solutions are under enormous pressure, whether from ever-greater efficiency drives, cuts to public services – including to regulators – and from the changing nature of work and associated risks.

The congress was very good in facing up to the latter. Since the last Congress in 2014, the pace of change has increased and now there is much more talk of automation, precarious working practices and the ‘gig’ economy (also called here ‘Uberisation’).

Technological change seems to be overtaking anxieties around demographic change as the ‘big one’ for the safety and health community to get to grips with. ISSA’s president Joachim Breuer gave a thought-provoking talk of the risks, many of which will impact on our health and wellbeing: where workers are turned into independent contractors they can lose influence over their working environment; and vitally where you have people and machines working together, who owns the risk, and therefore controls it?

With so many safety and health professionals present, it was only right that the impact of new technology on the profession itself should be addressed. In the session titled ‘OSH in the new digital world’, a contributor pointed out that all occupational health and safety experts are futurists because they are trained to predict and mitigate risks before accidents occur.

The new digital world, however, might lead to some of these ‘hard’ skills being automated and professional training is going to have to concentrate on certain human-centred skills such as curiosity, empathy, design thinking, which in the modern world of work will still be in demand.

This, like much else discussed in Singapore, will require a shift in the mentality of all of us. It is right that we aspire to ‘vision zero’ but we will only make a difference by staying true to the actual causes of accidents and ill health and by making the case for ‘good’ work in the face of technological change. A shift that, together with our members, the British Safety Council can have a real influence on. 

Mike Robinson is chief executive of the British Safety Council