The Friday Blog - A Health Warning from Lawrence Waterman and Alistair Gibb

The purpose of the One Percent Safer movement is to work to cut the global occupational fatality rate by one percentage point. We are agnostic about how we get there. That one percent equates to 28,000 lives saved a year and we’d be equally relieved if those 28,000 were individuals prevented from falling through fragile roofs or being struck by vehicles or if their lives were not shortened by daily exposure to toxic dust.

It is that second category, occupational health, where the potential gains are biggest in most higher-wage economies, whose fatal accident rates have been cut exponentially in the past 50 years, but whose fatal disease totals remain shamefully high. In the UK, for example, there were around 550 work-related fatal accidents (including drivers) in 2019, but around 12,000 premature deaths from cancer and lung disease linked to occupational exposures. True, around half that number were linked to work with asbestos in the heyday of the “miracle fibre” in the third quarter of the 20th century, but that still leaves some 6000 deaths from work-related diseases.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought one of the rarer classes of occupational health hazard - zoonoses - to the front of the public mind, but that’s no reason to think that the some of themost common causes of occupational mortality: damaged lungs through long exposure to flour, sawdust, chemical aerosols and so on are going to leap up the organisational agenda when the crisis has passed.

In the years before the pandemic, it was remarkable how many businesses with well-developed safety systems believed the next stage of their OSH evolution was to run wellbeing programmes to promote happiness and personal fitness among their workforces, while ignoring the glaring absence of thorough occupational hygiene planning and surveillance. That’s like trying to put a cherry on a cake when you have forgotten to bake the upper layers.

The neglect of occupational health is a theme of more than one contribution to the One Percent Safer book, which launched our movement.

Alistair Gibb, Professor of Construction Engineering at Loughborough University says that in the building sector 30 years ago, site managers focused on time, cost and quality and passed responsibility for hazard control to safety advisers. Now safety management in the sector has matured, especially among the larger contractors, so that managers realise they have a responsibility to plan and organise work safely. But the same is not true of occupational health, where site managers and supervisors still see skin or lung protection as a safety adviser’s job. (And many safety advisers believe it is the realm of occupational hygienists).

“Don’t pass the buck,” Alistair advises business leaders in his chapter. “Ensure that your managers ‘own’ occupational health.”

Lawrence Waterman, Chair of the British Safety Council and former head of health and safety for the 2012 Olympic Games infrastructure, makes a similar plea to leaders to “think once, think twice, think health” and suggests building occupational health awareness into all business processes

“Whenever a new shift starts, a new process is begun, new machinery used, a different work practice employed, a new team member joins, a new site starts operating, as a matter of complete routine we should ask: ‘What could this do to harm health? What can we do to make this healthier?”

This kind of thorough embedding of health into business thinking is what we need to bring down those thousands of deaths from work-related disease.

Alistair and Lawrence’s arguments for better health management are just two of the 137 insights from academics, OSH professionals and leaders in One Percent Safer. Learn more about the book and the movement it has generated here.

AUTHOR : Louis Wusterman

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