Stop burying our heads in the sand

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Ignoring what’s staring you in the face is a pretty normal reaction and most of the time doesn’t do us too much harm.

However, recently, I’ve noticed across a whole range of topics there are some serious absences in either the public debate – including via media and social media – or a lack of engagement by those institutions charged with protecting us from harm. It’s time to stop burying our heads in the sand.

Number one must be the mental health of workers. A recent Time to Change advert showed two workers sitting next to each other in a van, ignoring obvious signs of one of the men’s mental distress.

The advert gave this ignorance a face in the form of an elephant that sat calmly and silently between the two men. Nothing said or done, it is a picture most would recognise in workplaces up and down the country.

I also see this level of ignorance in the funding of our regulator and the resultant risk of it not being adequately resourced. Year on year the amount the taxpayer gives to HSE diminishes: in 2009/10 it stood at £231 million; in 2018/19 it was £131 million. HSE’s staff costs are now bigger than the taxpayer-funded part of regulator’s overall financial settlement.

Although I’m sure it was the intention for HSE’s commercial income to grow sufficiently to replace this loss over the last 10 years, it simply has not. When you combine a cash-strapped regulator involved in some pretty high-risk industries and our news-hungry culture, ignoring what might be around the corner, it strikes me as a prime example of burying your head in the sand.

For some reason this brings me on to Brexit. This edition of Safety Management has a dossier on how Brexit might impact on our health and safety laws and activities. My interest is more about the ability everyone seems to share on both sides of the debate of being able to ignore facts that don’t fit the preferred narrative.

It’s a sin most of us are guilty of, but when it’s tied to the future of the country, then it’s a sin that needs to be exposed and examined. Of course, while so many influential people are focused on this one thing, then hard questions about the health and wellbeing of the country are in danger of being lost.

Contributing to complacency about our health and wellbeing must be added the influence of the tech giants. Whether it’s Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, it is clear they impact on the identities we construct for ourselves as much as the lifestyle possibilities they promote. With their use of approvals and likes, for example, the mental health and wellbeing of our young people is at risk.

Starting at home or at school, ending in hospital or worse, the journey to self-harm or poor self-image of too many young people has been ‘mapped’ out in advance by these enormous technology companies. So, where is the legislation to make them remove harmful content? Why isn’t there a digital tax to fund the healthcare that has to pick up the pieces? Where is the debate? Probably too busy thinking about Brexit.

Finally, a present health risk that has been ignored for too long. Though the debate on air pollution is active and every day we understand better the health impacts of ambient air pollution, for our many outdoor workers, breathing invisible air pollution day-in, day-out is considered a normal part of their job. Time to Breathe, the campaign we’re launching, is explained here but two things strike me: in 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, yet our minister Sarah Newton MP (Department for Work and Pensions) tells us that HSE “is not currently undertaking any research to better understand the effect of polluted air on the health of outdoor workers”. Clearly there is a lot of sand out there.

We’re launching both Time to Breathe and a free innovative mobile app called Canairy in London on Tuesday, 12 March 2019. We would love to see members come along.

Mike Robinson FCA is Chief executive of the British Safety Council


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