Everything has changed over the last few months. VUCA was already reshaping our vocabulary. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity – these all surround us right now. Only by fostering an agile culture, being willing to try new things, by adapting and embracing technology will we pull through these testing times.
I, like others, am in the business of creating healthier, safer, fairer and more sustainable workplaces. Working in occupational safety and health (OSH) means it can be rare to receive a thank you. When the emergency lights pass their discharge test or the latest legionella sample is negative the work behind making it happen is often hidden from the wider business.
Think about something as simple as gas monitoring. Through the 19th and 20th centuries coal miners would take canaries into the tunnels to warn of the presence of life-threatening gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane. The canary would stop singing and eventually die, which would signal for the miners to exit the mine as quickly as possible. Nowadays, personal detection devices worn on the person combined with stringent regulation has seen us move on significantly.
Leading OSH can feel like climbing a mountain. On a good day, with great footholds and a clear direction, it is the best job in the world, but a change in business priority can obscure the summit and there will definitely be knocks and scrapes along the way. How often do we make time to look back and take in the view? Moving on from these small yellow birds to the current age – when was the last time you considered what you have achieved or how far we have come?
Here I look back at the last decade and look forward to what we might expect from the next.
The financial crash at the end of the previous decade meant a shift in financial focus. Prior to this, property was bought and sold on a much more frequent basis. A buoyant construction sector complemented this. With almost certain financial gains property was well maintained and resources for OSH unquestioned. It was only at the end of the decade when we began to see a more stable economy.
We enjoyed the London 2012 Olympics. This was a massive project – spanning five years and a 500-acre site. The Olympics was held up as a shining example of what could be achieved. For the first time in Olympics history there were no fatalities and an accident rate that was a third of the industry average. At the time there were discussions around whether the “Olympic Effect” drove this impressive safety record but since then larger infrastructure projects – Heathrow, Crossrail and HS2 – continue to drive high standards.
David Cameron pledged to tackle the “Health and Safety Monster” fuelling a negative perception of OSH and OSH professionals which was at an all-time low.
The HSE saw significant changes to their available budget which has resulted in less routine enforcement, with no routine inspections in “lower” risk HSE enforced sectors. The creation of Fees for Intervention was designed to re-charge businesses when a material breach has been identified. The scheme has not been popular and in 2019 fees increased to £154 per hour due to the operating costs of the scheme which meant it had been running to a deficit.
There was a significant change to Construction (Design and Management) Regulations which saw the domestic sector and smaller projects required to follow a process and assign specific duty holders when previously this had only been necessary for much larger construction works. It felt like the changes came in a rush and there is still reluctance on the part of some designers to risk assess their designs in a manner which can dramatically reduce or eliminate future use of new buildings or works. For those who have embraced the changes it has definitely provided greater control, but the HSE are still examining so called “Blue Tape” that creates burdens on business from other businesses aiming to achieve standards which might not
“for the first time in Olympics history there were no fatalities and an accident rate that was a third of the industry average”
The sentencing guidelines were reviewed in 2016. Right away fines for OSH offences significantly increased. £1 million fines are now commonplace and at the end of this decade sentencing for Gross Negligence Manslaughter has been clearly defined with harsher penalties. Responsible organisations have taken this seriously. The HSE are now more likely than ever before to prosecute individual Directors, Company Officers and decision makers who have acted below the standards expected.
The UK voted to leave the EU at a time when the global political climate was moving toward building walls and appeared to become increasingly inward looking.
The devastating loss of 72 lives in the fire at Grenfell shone a light on the complex nature of residential property management and how significant buildings are designed, operated and maintained. Judith Hackitt described the overly complicated nature of the process and a woeful checklist approach to managing OSH rather than a measured risk assessment process.
The UK Government published its report “Thriving for Work” in 2017 during a decade when the OSH profession put the “Health” back into “Health & Safety”. Since then there has been a much stronger focus, backed up by research, to support business in creating high level strategies which promote people and prevention first.
The long-awaited publication of ISO45001:2018 provided a model for Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) standards which aligns with other quality standards and associated guidance being issued. As many OSH practitioners find themselves on a global stage this is a standard recognised by peers across the world.
The collapse of construction giant Carillion cost the UK taxpayer an estimated £148 million when it was liquidated with £1.5bn of debt at a time when they had around 420 UK public sector contracts. Frank Field MP who chaired the Work & Pensions Committee accused the directors of “extraordinary negligent planning” highlighting the importance of effective governance. In the same year the UK Corporate Governance Code was published establishing a corporate culture which promotes integrity and values diversity.
In the final year of the decade two rail workers were killed following confusion around their duties which meant they were effectively working without a dedicated look out. This highlights the importance of learning from the past, of considering basic OSH principles and that constant vigilance is vital because complacency is not our friend.
As we turn into a new decade, we celebrate 20 years since asbestos was banned from common use in the UK in the knowledge there are still countries including Russia, China and USA where it is still used and/or produced for export.
Where are we headed?
The events of the last few months have shown us how fragile we are. Many businesses have been more concerned with cyber security and short-term profits than the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change which require continents and politicians to work together, as a global community, rather than constructing walls.
Globally, at least 742,000 people die every year from work-related exposure to carcinogenic substances.
In 2018, the BMJ published an article which raised concerns after finding the number of workplace carcinogens increased from 28 in 2004 to 47 in 2017. Future technology will bring with it new hazards. OSH principles will remain important when assessing health risks from design, fumes, dust or substances we can absorb through the skin.
“in the same way we track our steps it will be possible to collate data on posture, movement, fatigue, and if someone is wearing the right PPE for a job or task”
If the effects of climate change continue to be ignored, we will see more weather extremes, species extinction and natural disasters. Unless we work together, learn and adapt there will be more illnesses and disease due to exposure to solar radiation, heat, cold and poor sanitation. We will experience more resistant disease we cannot control. A combination of atmospheric pollutants and exposure to occupational hazards will reduce life expectancy.
Covid-19 has effectively put a break on the world economy. We are going to lose people due to work loss, deteriorating work/living conditions and poor mental health. The new economy will be different. The effects on the travel sector and aviation mean we may never travel as we once have, we may decide we don’t want to too. It will be hard for our leisure sector to come back and we will focus on what we need rather than what we want.
More and more people are working from home; this will continue as records are broken on webinars accessed by anyone from anywhere during the crisis.
In the future, technology will be used to monitor and check control effectiveness, worker health and productivity more. In the same way we track our steps it will be possible to collate data on posture, movement, fatigue, sleep and even if someone is wearing the right PPE for a job or task.
We will use technology to monitor driver behaviours. Dash cams, cab cams and tracking will be normal. We will have driverless vehicles and greater automation but how we connect with this and the robots around us will require assessment.
Virtual reality will become more accessible and used increasingly for OSH training, capturing data on how workers perform especially as an alternative to training in actual high-risk environments. However, we may discover the lack of people contact and real hands-on supervision risks turning this approach into gaming which may not reduce risk in the manner initially considered.
How we use and access this huge amount of data will come under scrutiny. Is it reasonably practicable to install and if it is, how will we make sense of it?
Data and targeted independent research by academics will show us trends in health and sickness linked to work, lifestyle and what we do. Risks we currently consider as being acceptable will be re-evaluated, in the same way extreme physical contact in football, rugby and other sports is now being researched due to links with brain diseases. Materials we currently use will be re-evaluated with a return to using more natural products which do not harm the environment. We will all have to work much longer.
The rise of technological addiction will require businesses to create strategies to manage these health concerns in workers who are continually using multiple devices whilst becoming less active as they do so. Employers will consider ergonomic design more. Leaders will need to walk the talk and managed digital detox could become more common.
Fatigue and sleep health will become a more significant issue as we all wrestle with a new economy heavily in debt. Stress and mental health will need to be managed in a manner never seen before. Enforcement bodies will start to crack down and we will see cases go to court which will closely examine corporate decisions.
In our strive to make things appear easier we have created a world which has become increasingly complex. There is less time to think through an issue mindfully in our rush to a search engine to continually analyse rather than discuss and communicate on a personal and creative level. We have all been looking to create a new, more cost-effective way of working ahead of our competitors. Where there is a logical path to a decision which can be made via an algorithm, artificial intelligence or template this will remove the human element of our work. Human to human contact is going to reduce significantly.
Human to human contact will lessen. Lone worker initiatives to meet, to see each other, to speak across time zones and around the world will not only be important from an OSH perspective but also to improve our productivity. Loneliness will be a future hazard.
Criminals will continue to operate and traffic people to work in low paid, poor conditions potentially taking seed from the gig economy. The extent of modern slavery within so called civilised society will become more apparent and greater legislative controls will be needed.
The virus has forced a slowdown; a reflection. It is making us appreciate our outside space, clean air and those who work silently to clean, to mend, to deliver, to care. It has made us appreciate contact and touch.
We have an opportunity to create a new way to do business which is people focused, health focused, less unfair. Investors will look at businesses which survived and ask why. Those with high standards of governance, which are inclusive and ethical will stand out. For those OSH professionals who can adapt to complement these growing pains as business builds itself back up, who can demonstrate empathy and exceptional standards of communication there will be new opportunities.
We are already starting to see a rejection of the type of OSH management which involves control, restriction, rules and autocratic, persuasive, hierarchical management. No amount of risk profiling is going to enable us to create rules for everything so going back to basics will be important. Skills around curiosity, compromise, adaptability, resilience and tact will be required. We will learn new approaches to finding out and capturing what people think, have previously experienced and know; we will care more about those who are the lowest paid in society and ask them, too. We become better at retaining corporate memory.
We have come together to fight a war against something we cannot see or smell or taste. With this newfound unity business has an opportunity to work together, look beyond sectors, break down silos and learn from each other. Future success will come from embracing the importance of Human Capital and agreeing an ethical approach. OSH practitioners will work more closely with other professionals than has ever been seen before especially in academia, HR, finance and technology.
Legal privilege will be stripped away to reach root cause. There really will be nowhere to hide for those who choose to compromise standards. Digital footprints will lead to greater honesty. The consequences of Grenfell will be far reaching and we will see multiple personal prosecutions of Directors and Company Officers which will set a precedent for those who choose not to embrace the spirit of OSH legislation. We will see Directors, Managers, and decision makers jailed for longer. The sentencing guidelines changed the landscape in 2016 and there will be further reviews. The courts will impose fines which will take the worst offenders out of business and courts will clamp down on phoenix companies who close down and re-open under a different name with the same directors.
There will be a changed approach to effective leadership and new approaches guided by occupational psychology. We will re-learn the art of prioritisation and time management, but we will also have to simplify our approaches to be more sustainable and avoid becoming human robots.
A sea change is here.
We have a choice to either continue in a rush to the bottom and be the cheapest or embrace high personal and business values which place a high priority on good work, paying people a living wage to work in a safe, healthy and more sustainable manner which is less disposable.
“Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to stop, to reflect, to consider, this is our canary moment”
As we leave the EU the UK will face a choice to de-regulate OSH. It will be a brave administration which does so but they will feel brave when we emerge from this crisis. As we open up the opportunities to trade with new nations our national standards will be tested.
Emotional intelligence and mentally agile management will be needed to navigate a new world we will not recognise. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to stop, to reflect, to consider. Its consequence has been vast and not yet fully realised. The yellow bird in a cage was small and fragile but it saved lives. This is our canary moment. It is time to move in the opposite direction, to protect our environment, to protect ourselves, care more about how people feel, their health and to save more lives.