Opinion

Not yesterday’s issue

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When we recruit at a senior level, and recently we have been successfully looking for and appointing additional Trustees to the Board of our thriving organisation, we always ask the applicants to provide us with a short briefing on what they see as the current challenges that the British Safety Council faces.


Of course, there is a wide variation in style, in the language used, in the relaxed or nervous delivery, but I have been struck by the consistency of the key themes that have been outlined and the consensus that reinforces what we hear from our members and the many people who work for and with us in our efforts to make workplaces safe and healthy.

The first and clearest message is that safety is not a done deal, it isn’t yesterday’s issue. People are still being killed at and by work, 137 last year and that is not taking into account the accidents on the roads involving work journeys.

As an international organisation, we also know that the levels of safety achieved in the UK and across Europe are not replicated everywhere. Our vision that no one should be injured by their work or the work undertaken by someone else requires a lot more effort to realise.

However, the successes in recent years in safety have definitely not been matched by improvements in health and wellbeing, where a variety of factors seem to be creating a perfect storm.

Whether it’s the public sector with staff reductions mixed with targets that has created an overworking organisational culture with high levels of both sickness absence and sick presenteeism, and the mental ill health this can promote; or the private sector with gig economy workers always balancing on the edge of a debt precipice causing untold high levels of stress and depression, we are suffering a wave of mental ill health that reflects a toxic context.

The British Safety Council has two distinct functions: to encourage good and best practice, in particular by sharing the excellent examples generated by members to motivate others to emulate them, and to research, explore and investigate, and use the evidence generated to speak out against abuses of workers and workplaces and call for appropriate standards to be set and adhered to.

We have always operated like this, unhesitatingly stating that there are elements of developing employment practice that are good and beneficial and that, in other cases, there are unacceptable ways of managing work that cause unnecessary, preventable harm.

The flexibility of the gig economy has been established with the boundaries pushed by commercial organisations seeking a bottom-line benefit, and by some workers who value a degree of freedom compared with fixed hours contracts, but this is just one example where what is good should be captured and protected while the abuses that leave workers feeling vulnerable with their incomes precarious should be addressed.

Couriers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers and burger flippers are people too, with hopes, aspirations and families to care for, and they too need work and workplaces that are free from injury and ill health.

Increasingly, that is a call for addressing more than accident risks.  Similar arguments apply to the growth in artificial intelligence in the workplace, with the pressures on older workers.

The British Safety Council is working hard with its members to redefine safety to include the health and wellbeing of all workers, to share best practice and challenge where it falls far short of that.

Lawrence Waterman OBE is chair of the board of trustees at the British Safety Council

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