School of occupational health and safety

Many of us are seemingly content that occupational safety and health laws exist – and are enforced – reducing risks to a minimum, but we hardly talk about the way we learn about it.

We rarely learn about safety, health, hazard or risk at school; once we arrive at the workplace, learning about occupational safety and health (OSH) is not much more than being told about a few hazards and what personal protection equipment to wear; and generally we tend to put the demands of the job over our own health. But do we need to talk about how we learn about occupational safety and health?

A European Network for Education and Training in OSH (ENETOSH) was created in 2005, funded by the European Commission to precisely challenge this inertia. Ulrike Bollmann, from Germany’s social accident insurance (DGUV), has been the main driver of this informal network, supplying an inexhaustible reservoir of commitment and energy to catapult ENETOSH way beyond its European origins into today’s global, densely configured network. And with OSH education currently a hot topic for some, ENETOSH can take credit for fostering this state of affairs.

I asked Ulrike about the value of OSH education to understand more about why ENETOSH was created. “My strongest driver for starting ENETOSH was to give those of us interested in education – educationalists – an equal place within the world of occupational safety and healthy. The common view among OSH people – and one that is still prevalent – is that education is simply an instrument to deliver some OSH information. I think that’s wrong.”

“Education is much broader than just this instrumental view. Education is central to our condition as human beings, and crucial when we talk about behavioural or culture change in relation to our safety and health. Remember you are born human but to achieve humanity you need education.”

Ulrike Bollmann, head of international cooperation at the Institute for Work and Health (IAG) of the German Social Accident Insurance, is a driving force behind ENETOSH

So, what are the real problems in how people are educated about OSH and workplace risks? “First,” says Ulrike about a phenomenon that most of us will recognise, “the attitude of many OSH people to education is still to simply show a few slides.” According to her this happens because many OSH experts lack expertise in training. This is changing fast, and ENETOSH has helped drive this. The other main gap is within the world of education, where OSH knowledge is poor and many don’t see the value of risk as a topic for education.

“For example, giving children an opportunity to learn in healthy schools will improve their education more generally. It’s not the traditionalist approach. It’s about how being attentive to safety and health encourages a self-consciousness that is aware of even weak signals, to be sensitive, to be mindful, to have trust in yourself and others.

“Our experience tells us that you need to start in this way very early, with young children. Our network has given people from different backgrounds a platform from which to push hard against their own institutions.”

A more holistic approach to education on safety, health and wellbeing may lead to a new way of thinking about the way we work in the future. Photograph: iStock / sturti

ENETOSH is, therefore, an opportunity to bring together people from both education and OSH backgrounds to share knowledge and experience, and improve the impact of their work. Such a platform doesn’t create itself and Ulrike and her colleagues have invested heavily in operating and expanding the network. It currently has 85 members from 35 countries, including most of Europe and global partnerships with the Americas, Asia and Africa.

Ulrike is convinced it is making an impact. “People are now setting up shared learning spaces, they are investing resources to ‘train the trainer,’ they’re asking for innovative curricula, they’re asking for standards. It’s a hot topic with a known dynamic.”

Much of the work to combine – or mainstream – OSH and education is captured in more than 800 case studies on the ENETOSH website. The examples from Europe and the globe range across campaigns and educational initiatives are provided by various members of the network. The main learning points from these examples will be presented in early 2018, following a joint study by the British Safety Council and ENETOSH, but at this stage Ulrike was clear about the future direction:

“We have to stop inventing methods, trying things out because we like it. We have everything we need to implement good occupational health and safety education and organisations in the next five years must embrace change.”

With Ulrike’s enthusiasm and ENETOSH continuing to ride the crest of this wave, a more holistic approach to education on health, safety and wellbeing might well lead to new, radical thinking about how we work in the future.

More about ENETOSH at: www.enetosh.net