Missing: the H from HSE. Where did it go?

Missing: the H from HSE. Where did it go?

In any discussion on HSE, considerable management time and energy is devoted to Safety and Environmental matters: figures and trends are examined, incidents analysed, and initiatives planned. But usually conspicuous by its absence is the ‘H’. Do we give Health the time it so richly deserves? To what extent is Health a business issue? Do we believe the reports, the assessments and the trends that show that good health is good business? Or do we assume that Health somehow looks after itself? H for Health would appear to be missing, so where did it go?

For many of us, health is a simple and personal concept: people turn up for work with good health, get tired working and return home tired but with still the same good health. If the individual works in an environment that can be filled with obviously nasty stuff, then Personal Protective Equipment can be provided. In some sectors in some countries, there are legal requirements providing for screening, insurance, limits, and equipment and so on and also outlining responsibilities. But at the root of the H question, we tend to remain a bit removed from it all: we play a reactive game, responding to a doctor’s note or a specific problem. Few companies integrate the management of Occupational Health and Hygiene into business processes, and even fewer promote health as an opportunity to create better, healthier lifestyles for the management and staff.  

Taking a holistic approach to the management of the health of staff, neighbours, perhaps even suppliers and customers must surely actively promote a more sustainable business, even in the short-term. Yet it is ironic that we see most proactive occupational health management in places and sectors with probably the least risk. Gym memberships, healthy lifestyles, planned exercise, ergonomic assessments and ‘wellness’ initiatives are more likely to be available to sedentary office workers in well-lit, spacious, comfortable offices in central London or Tokyo but rarely, if ever, to a worker 350 metres underground in a coal-mine, or in a foundry or on a plantation in the blazing tropics. Footwear for a security guard, say, at a steel plant is most likely purchased at the lowest price against a specification that reads simply ‘Shoe, Waterproof, Black, Laces, Steel Cap’. Workers who are comfortable and have precisely the right equipment for their size, weight or ability are absolutely inevitably going to be both more motivated and productive.So are we really serious about the ‘H’ bit or is it just a recruitment chip for the suburban latte generation? 

The spectrum of good corporate healthcare needs to run from simple travel prescriptions, tobacco awareness and manual lifting and office ergonomics through to tragic illnesses and epidemics, and must also include activities and hazards that cause illness in the long-term, such as chemical handling, dust, noise and vibration. In many countries, companies have developed coping strategies for HIV/AIDS – for the individual, their family, colleagues, the community and the company – including policies and specific procedures. There are examples of similar tactics being deployed to help in the fight against other serious conditions and illnesses, but again, they are typically reactive to a specific risk rather than conceived to promote wider company, public or community health. 

However, good health is not guaranteed by physical comfort alone. Good mental health is also crucial, and most modern businesses fail to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. There is an oft-heard mantra of ‘shape up or ship out’ but the statistics suggest it is the companies who should shape up, not their staff: FTSE100 companies that managed stress and mental wellbeing effectively, outperformed the others by 10%. That’s difficult to ignore, as is the fact that 1 in 6 employees have, at any given time, mental health issues. The UK’s Health & Safety Executive provides a wealth of management standards and tools to help companies manage stress and mental health issues. 

Further valuable research findings are available from studies in both New Zealand and Australia, and although it was produced 14 years ago, KPMG’s report “Key management motivators in Occupational Health and Safety” for Australia’s National Occupational Health & Safety Commission still provides an excellent overview of modern-day Occupational Health challenges. 

So how much is the ‘H’ missing? In the UK, while the number of workplace injuries continues to fall, the number of workplace-related illnesses is on the rise, with 535,000 reported in 2013/14. 80% of these were related to musculoskeletal, stress, depression or anxiety. In all, 1.2 million people – or almost 4% of the UK workforce – suffer from a work-related illness. Given the UK’s historical good record on tackling workplace illnesses, the figures are likely to be higher in other countries. 

The solutions to workplace illnesses, especially those relating to stress, depression and anxiety, are not easy to find or implement. Indeed, these solutions do not necessarily spring just from appointing occupational hygienists or medical advisors. Specialists can identify the problems but real lasting resolution will come from ordinary managers and supervisors understanding the causes and effects of workplace illnesses, and the positive value of good health for all. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a much recommended approach to energising a healthier business is the implementation of the main current BS OHSAS 18001 Occupational health & safety standard which uses a similar framework to the better-known ISO9000 and ISO14000 standards on quality and environmental management, respectively. Meanwhile, much work is being done behind the scenes to produce ISO45001 on health and safety, and it is expected to be launched in late 2016, so building further on the foundations of BS OHSAS 18001. This will create a robust and familiar approach to managing workplace health and safety. 

In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive organizes a Health & Safety Week, June 15th-19th, and globally, the ILO promotes the 28th April as World Day for Safety and Health at Work.Perhaps this year, those could be opportunities to particularly focus the mind on finding the lost ‘H’ and returning it to its rightful place?