Designing a better future

If someone came to you and told you that they would like to engage in an activity that involved sliding down a long, steep, undulating ice slope with tight bends, while sat on a metal tray with skate blades attached to the bottom, reaching speeds of over 80mph, what would you say?

What about launching themselves down a steep hill and over the edge of a sheer drop wearing long flexible plastic strips on their feet, aiming to glide distances of over 200m at high speed, and then land on their feet and slide down a steep snow-covered hill until it levels out?

Or even propelling a metal tube on skates from the top of a steep ice shoot, then jumping in with three other people and sliding down, round a series of tight bends and gradient changes reaching speeds of over 80mph, until coming to a rest on a snow-covered hill at the bottom (provided there hasn’t been a crash before that!)?

As a safety professional it would be easy to refuse such requests, without giving them much detailed thought, on the basis of the hazard alone. And yet, the Winter Olympics just finished in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with athletes achieving new records despite the hazard profile of these and other activities, and serious incidents are actually relatively unusual. Needless risk taking, or excellent risk management?

Looking at archive material and images from the early winter games is quite alarming, but in modern times winter sports have attracted huge investment, which is driving significant innovation in control measures and protection. The key is achieving a balance that facilitates activity while also minimising the likelihood of harm.

As health and safety practitioners we are being called upon to apply our risk management expertise in an increasingly diverse range of situations. There is no doubt that our lives, our jobs and our workplaces are changing at a much faster pace than ever before.

In a recently published research report Future Risk. Impact of work on health, safety and wellbeing, the British Safety Council has considered how these changes might impact on people, and set out areas for consideration and action by employers, regulators and government.

During 2017 Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, was invited by the government to undertake a review into modern working practices. The report identified that the legal and regulatory regimes do not adequately reflect the nature of modern work, and that this has resulted in a number of loopholes and grey areas that have the potential to adversely impact people working in some areas of the economy.

In February the government published its response to the review and, acknowledging these issues, has launched a series of consultations to help scope the changes necessary to promote fairness, safety, security and wellbeing for all workers in the modern economy.

At the moment it feels very much as though society is struggling to keep pace with the changes being driven by economic progress and technological innovation. To address this, a change in approach is required. Rather than waiting for change to occur and then reacting to address the resulting issues, we need to take a longer-term view, look forward and take the opportunity to design for the future.

Application of the basic principles of risk management will allow us to anticipate potential issues, and adapt our plans to design these out before they even occur. This will be much more effective from a business point of view, and will help to foster a culture of engagement to sustain and support efficiency and positive mental health among workers.

I believe that health and safety practitioners have a key role to play in helping businesses to adopt this more forward-thinking approach. Our role has moved on from one of policing compliance to one of facilitating effective risk management. This places us right at the heart of what is currently being heralded as the fourth industrial revolution, and offers us the opportunity to really get involved in shaping the future.

So be brave! Think big and embrace the opportunity to design a better future for everybody.

Future Risk. Impact of work on health, safety and wellbeing can be found here.

Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices can be found here.

Louise Ward is head of policy, standards and communications at the British Safety Council.