Putting OH centre stage

The
Government is keen to put occupational health at the heart of its strategy on
workplace reforms. But how practical is its approach and what can OH do to help?  By Nic Paton

The
Government’s new strategy on workplace health and safety has been described as
the biggest shake up in the sector in more than 30 years. For occupational
health professionals, the key questions are ‘is it?’ and ‘what will it mean for
me?’.

At
this early stage, the strategy does appear radical. It also puts OH right at
its heart.

Unveiled
in February, by minister for work Des Browne and Bill Callaghan, chair of the
Health & Safety Commission (HSC), the strategy outlines the key goals that
it argues will help to improve workplace health and safety:


the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to target
resources at areas of greatest need, and having the confidence to be less
active where risks are well managed, where the emphasis will instead be on
advice and support


promoting greater involvement of workers, particularly that of staff and
managers to manage risk factors, such as stress, employee well-being and
rehabilitation


making information more accessible and providing clearer and simpler advice


building better, closer relationships between the various health and safety
bodies – for example, between local authorities and local OH units


emphasising that support does not necessarily mean enforcement, and so trying
to reduce the fear and stigma that comes with ‘calling in health and safety’,
and looking at ways to drive home the message of the importance of health and
safety


improving the way the HSE and HSC communicate.

The
next phase involves drawing up proposals to look at how OH can provide better
support for health and safety, with a high-level strategic programme due to be
outlined in May.

A
partnership agreement between local authorities and the HSE will be thrashed
out between now and July, with proposals for improving advice and guidance and
reducing the fear of enforcement being pulled together by September. Finally, a
strategy for interventions will be drawn up by the end of the year.

While
the country’s record on reducing accidents at work has been impressive, similar
improvements are needed to reduce ill health arising from work, said Browne at
the launch.

“It
is vital that the whole health and safety system is involved and close
partnerships are  forged with other
stakeholders to bring about change and improvement,” he said. “This Government
sees occupational health and safety as a cornerstone of a civilised society and
wants to achieve a record that leads the world.

“Great
strides have already been made on safety improvements and I want to see similar
progress on occupational health,” he added.

Callaghan
pointed to the fact that the strategy is recognition that the working world,
and the hazards that come with it, are changing.

“It
is intended to reinforce our message about adopting a sensible approach to
health and safety, about balancing risks and benefits,” he explained.

“We
are not looking for a risk-free society, but one where risks are better
understood. Similarly we are signalling that more legislation will not be our
first response to new issues.”

The
strategy was intended to “further energise” the UK’s approach to improving
workplace health and safety, he said.

For
OH professionals, these sorts of sentiments, and the emphasis on words such as
‘energise’ are, of course, largely to be welcomed. Anything that can help to
raise the profile and effectiveness of OH within the workplace is a good thing.

But
caution remains about whether another document or another strategy coming from
the centre is really going to make that much difference on the ground.

The
focus on changing perceptions about health and safety was useful, as was trying
to instil a more proactive approach in managers.

Graham
Johnson, business development manager at Interact Health Management said: “It
is refreshing as a document. If employers can be encouraged to pick up a phone
or call a helpline or call centre that must be good.”

Similarly,
despite all the progress in changing the perception of OH among employers, it
is still vital to work to improve the accessibility of OH and health and safety
in general, said Sharon Horan, director of OH nursing services at Aon Health
Solutions.

Even
if the underlying message – of joined-up thinking and being proactive – is not
exactly new, there is still a need to continue to push it until it sinks in,
she argued.

Ultimately,
if the HSE and the Government are serious about giving OH a leg-up in terms of
profile and focus, the profession is not going to object. But, if so, OH will
need to make sure it is continuing to build its own partnerships and bridges.  

“There
are a few places where occupational health is threaded and embedded within the
culture of the organisation, but not many. We cannot continue to work in
isolation any longer,” explained Horan.

www.hse.gov.uk/aboutus/hsc/strategy.htm

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