In with the new

How does the new HSC strategy fit in with preceding government strategies on
health and safety and how will it influence workplace practices?

In February this year, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) launched its
new strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and
beyond.1

Chairman of HSC, Bill Callaghan, says the strategy sets out what the HSC wants
to achieve through the contributions of HSE and local authorities (LAs), and
confirms the HSC’s intentions to understand and value the contribution of
others in improving health and safety.

OH departments within companies have grown as the complexities and
legislation surrounding the subject have developed and people become more aware
of the intricacies of employment and the effects it can have on health. But
does this new document offer any hope, help or support to the OH professional
or even the hard-pressed employers?

Background

Many government strategies for occupational health and safety have been put
forward over the past 40 years.

In Tunbridge’s 1968 report on the care of hospital workers, it was
recommended that all NHS staff should have access to OH services.2

Today, that is still not completely the case. The first document on OH, as
opposed to safety, from HSC/HSE was published by EMAS in 1977.3 It suggested
that small occupational health services run by nurses should be tested.

Nothing was done after this original document to pursue this aim, and it was
almost 20 years before OH was mentioned again, when the HSE launched its Good
Health is Good Business (GHGB) campaign to raise awareness of OH issues in the
workplace and to improve employers’ competence in the management of health
risks.4

The evaluation research of the campaign said that the report had led to some
significant changes, but that the content and delivery of such campaigns needed
to be improved and further research was necessary to explore why some
organisations were aware of the campaign and others were not.5

Other government departments produced documents focusing on the impact of
work on health, such as Health of the Nation in 1993,6 later updated by a
change in government to Saving Lives, Our Healthier Nation in 1999.7 This was
closely followed by the Department for the Environment’s Revitalising Health
and Safety: Strategy Statement in 2000,8 and the HSC’s Securing Health
Together, also in 2000.9 In 1998, the Department of Health produced
Occupational Health Nursing: Contributing to Healthier Workplaces,10 and last
year it brought out Taking a Public Health Approach in the Workplace.11

But is this all just government rhetoric or have there actually been any
positive changes in the delivery of OH services or the health of the workforce
as a result of all these strategies and documents?

The second biggest cause of sickness absence for longer than three days is
due to stress.12 It is arguable that the pressure of all the health &
safety legislation is a contributing factor to this stress, especially for
small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) trying to keep up with the
ever-increasing and demanding legislation.

Moving forward

The new HSC strategy says its mission is "to work with LAs to protect
people’s health and safety by ensuring that risks in the changing workplace are
properly controlled", a concept that was first enshrined in the Health and
Safety at Work Act 1974.

While it is indisputable that the HASAW Act has played a key role in
reducing accidents and fatalities at work over the past 30 years, the workplace
has changed since then.

In the UK today, the majority of businesses employ fewer than 10 people,
most of whom struggle with the mountain of health and safety legislation they
have to cope with. It seems, therefore, that the HSC’s strategy is more geared
towards large companies with professional HR, health and safety and OH departments,
but the majority of small employers don’t have that sort of expertise available
to them and trust on maintaining good relations with their few employees.

Only when the public may be involved with their undertakings, or insurance
companies ask for policies and risk assessments, may health and safety rear its
head. So the new aims for both the HSC and HSE outlined in the document will be
a tall order for these smaller organisations.

The document says that the strategy has been developed through a process of
consultation. However, despite the outline of the consultation process and the
numbers involved, many of the small businesses have no idea about health and
safety, let alone any new strategy or how it may relate to them.

Strategy themes

The strategy is divided into themes, with key points to support them:

Developing closer partnerships

In this section, occupational health is acknowledged as a rising challenge
now that "causes of safety failure" have been brought under some sort
of control.

It identifies that OH offers a proactive approach to the management of
health risks at work. But is this sufficient, especially with a NHS geared
towards treating the sick and injured. Such proactive occupational health is
costly and is not available on the NHS. And even if there is a cost saving to
be made in preventing sickness absence, rehabilitation programmes and getting
people back to work after sick leave, there may not be enough manpower to put
OH into practice.

Helping people benefit from effective health and safety management and a
sensible health and safety culture

The setting up of a free, independent health and safety advice centre
focusing primarily on occupational health, promoting rehabilitation and getting
people back to work more quickly would be a good move, provided that it is well
advertised to small businesses.

SMEs could then receive help and advice on how to deal with these matters,
especially as they can’t always afford to employ a dedicated OH member of
staff.

Focusing on our core business and the right interventions where we are
best placed to reduce workplace injury and ill health.

This theme reiterates what the HSE and LAs are all about and have been
involved with for many years. It really concerns enforcement of the ‘big boys’
in significantly harmful environments, such as the chemical, nuclear and
railways industries. The inclusion of the views of stakeholders is at least a
positive move forward.

Communicating the vision

Communication is key to realising any vision, and stating that the HSC and
HSE need to do this effectively for their new strategy to work should be taken
as given. This, after all, was the conclusion from the evaluation research of
the GHGB campaign.

The HSC says that its goal is not to create a risk-free society. Indeed, The
Royal Society states that ‘risk is ubiquitous and no human activity can be
considered risk-free’.13

Rather, the new strategy is working towards a society where risk is properly
appreciated, understood and managed, defending the system against those who are
over zealous and cannot recognise the appropriate balance between risk and
benefits. If this can be achieved, then the strategy will certainly have made
some advances in this litigious age.

It will be interesting to see the business plans and developments that
emerge from the HSE’s strategy, and to read the evaluation report after 2010 to
see how its results compare with the strategies of the past.

References

1. A Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety in Great Britain to 2010 and
Beyond, HSC (2004)

2. The Care of the Health of Hospital Staff: Report of the Joint Committee
of the Central and Scottish Health Services Council, Tunbridge (1968), London:
HMSO

3. Occupational Health Services: The Way Ahead. (Prevention and Health Series),
HSC (1977), London: HMSO

4. Good Health is Good Business campaign, HSE (1995)

5. Evaluation of the Good Health is Good Business Campaign, Contract
Research Report 272/2000, HSE (2000)

6. The Health of the Nation: a Strategy for Health in England, DoH (1992),
London: HMSO

7. Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation, The Stationery Office, DoH (1999)

8. Revitalising Health and Safety: Strategy Statement, The Stationery
Office, DETR (2000)

9. Securing Health Together: A Long-Term Occupational Health Strategy for
England, Scotland and Wales, HSC (2000)

10. Occupational Health Nursing; Contributing to Healthier Workplaces, DoH
and the English National Board for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting
(1998), London: ENB

11. Taking a Public Health Approach in the Workplace; a guide for
Occupational Health Nurses, DoH (2003), London: DoH

12. www.hse.gov.uk/stress

13. Risk: Analysis, Perception and Management: Report of a Royal Society
Study Group, The Royal Society (1992), London: Royal Society

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