The role of evidence in workplace safety and health

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Safety and health professionals do an extraordinary job, protecting people day in, day out from workplace hazards. But in arranging that protection they are often unable to draw on reliable evidence on which techniques and interventions are most beneficial and cost effective. At Lloyd’s Register Foundation, we believe that must change.

Lloyd’s Register Foundation is a charity dedicated to increasing safety around the world. Our research provides insights into risks and risk reduction for workplace activities ranging from additive manufacturing to critical infrastructure maintenance. Our latest World Risk Poll in 2021 surveyed the risk perception of 125,000 people in 121 countries, and found that workplace harm remains one of the most under-estimated risks globally.

Dr Sarah Cumbers, Director of Evidence and Insight at Lloyds Register Foundation.

Until recent years, the Foundation had not focused on funding work specifically on occupational safety and health (OSH) outside our origins in the maritime sector. When we started looking at this area more broadly, a picture emerged of a highly-engaged safety profession making important decisions, often championing their preferred interventions but with little access to robust evidence on their return on investment.

To see if this impression was valid, the Foundation partnered with the National Safety Council (NSC) in the US to commission researchers at RAND Europe to investigate the state of evidence in occupational safety and health: what is available, who is using it, and what for. Based on the published literature, and surveys and interviews with practitioners, they found that there was no shared definition of evidence in the OSH profession and that organisations were influenced in their decision making more by regulation and corporate culture than data on what interventions had most impact.

That’s understandable, given that health and safety provision in business has been driven by regulation for most of the past 75 years – in smaller businesses, it often still is. But the belief that employers have a broader duty to look after their workforces, beyond the minimum safety net set by law, has grown among investors, the public and workers themselves.

Wellbeing provision and mental health support are good examples of this wider reach. These are not covered by employment statute in most countries, but more and more organisations are funding physical fitness programmes and signposting services for employees with anxiety or depression.

Researchers we commissioned at Nottingham Trent University to review wellbeing initiatives in the maritime sector found that there was limited research into the benefits of interventions. There were few comparative or longitudinal studies to assess whether any benefits had been lasting. The study found there seems to be an appetite for investigation of novel interventions rather than monitoring and evaluating existing programmes.

Not knowing what works best when you are trying to keep staff safe and healthy leaves employers at risk of adding costs without giving employees the support they need.

We aim to bring some light to this area. In recent years a cluster of ‘What Works centres’ have been established in the UK. These are research bodies, usually government funded, covering issues from crime reduction to social care. The centres are dedicated to collating evidence and filling gaps identified in the data on which interventions are the most effective - and cost-effective - in improving outcomes. Crucially, the centres present the information in forms that are most useful to policymakers.  The Foundation has funded a feasibility study for a What Works Centre for safety, looking at the potential need for a centre and what its focus and scope should be. (What Works centres take different approaches depending on what is most needed in their focus areas; they can generate evidence, collate what is there already, translate existing evidence to make it easier to use, or work on supporting its implementation.)

The What Works Centre for Safety study is only one of several initiatives the Foundation has funded recently in the occupational safety arena. Others include continuing research into how to measure the value of safety management and how to express it in terms that are useful for ESG and sustainability reporting.

We are committed to stimulating better evidence provision to help organisations make informed decisions about worker protection. But there has to be a demand side as well as a supply side for that data. Safety and health practitioners have to seek out firm evidence for interventions they are considering. They have to nurture a critical approach to the claimed benefits of new initiatives. And when they do trial new schemes, careful monitoring and evaluation of data from the pilots is vital, fueling a virtuous circle of improved evidence.

Safety and health professionals deserve more robust and easily accessible evidence for the critical work they do, enabling them to improve outcomes. Let’s work together to ensure more of that evidence is available to them.

Dr Sarah Cumbers is Director of Evidence and Insight at Lloyds Register Foundation.

Click here for more information on the work of Lloyds Register Foundation. 


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