Fighting for a healthier workplace

The
Health and Safety Executive is actively promoting the use of occupational
health services as a way of reducing the number of accidents of work and
cutting down on absenteeism. Caroline Horn reports

Less
than one-third of Britain’s 25 million workers have access to an occupational
health service, according to the Institute of Management’s Survey of Use of
Occupational Health Support
, conducted for the Health and Safety Executive
(HSE). Even worse is the finding that only 3 per cent of UK companies are using
all the key elements of occupational health support as defined by the HSE.

However,
the HSE’s positive role in persuading companies to introduce occupational
health measures, was also highlighted in the report. Elizabeth Gyngell, head of
the health strategy, management and research division at the HSE, is among
those currently involved in raising awareness of occupational health among UK
organisations. She has spent 34 years with the organisation, including her
early training as an HM inspector of factories.

The
HSE is supporting Government targets for the reduction of accidents and
ill-health in Britain’s workplaces by 2010, with a range of campaigns focused
on occupational health provision, including the reduction of workplace stress
and the cost benefits of occupational health programmes.

Ms
Gyngell is responsible for implementing the strategy Securing Health Together,
as well as managing occupational health research, developing policy on
rehabilitation and managing the HSE’s programmes for musculo-skeletal disorders
and stress.

To
find out exactly how the HSE is tackling the issue, Caroline Horn met up with
Ms Gyngell and asked her the following questions:

Q.
With just one in seven workers in the UK benefiting from comprehensive OH
support, do you feel HSE is fighting a losing battle to convince employers of
its merits?

A.
“I think it is very challenging, but often the underlying problem is that firms
are not doing proper risk assessments. They don’t use occupational health
because they don’t know what the problems are. So it is not about losing the
battle, but about getting people to undertake risk assessments and understand
workplace risks.

“This
research also gave us our first clear picture of the take-up of occupational
health support. Before, companies just had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whether they
had any, so we’re not sure if the levels of health support are actually going
down, as we didn’t have detailed information to begin with. In future, we can
compare other reports to these results to find out if provision is going up or
down.”

Q.
Do you feel that OH departments and practitioners struggle to convince the
board that the OH function is strategic and can add to the bottom line?

A.
“Yes, it is a problem, and I think the way around it is for us to stop talking
about health and safety or occupational health, and start talking about things
that boards are interested in – like staff retention and productivity.

“If
you can avoid having people off sick, or get them back to work quickly, then
you keep key staff in place and start to increase productivity, and can then
spend the money saved on employing more staff. We also have to encourage
companies to do that for themselves – global figures mean nothing to companies
until they can see the relevance for themselves.”

Q.
You say that a lot more needs to be done to help prevent people becoming ill
because of their work. Have you any strategies or campaigns planned other than the
recently launched campaign to highlight work-related stress?

A.
“Our main focus is the Securing Health Together campaign, a 10-year
occupational health plan for the country. It is about working in partnership to
achieve certain goals. One of the big changes we are trying to put across, is
how to get people focused on outcomes.

“The
commission has decided that it is not possible to achieve these goals if things
carry on in the same way, which is why we launched the eight-priority campaign
last year [Commission’s Strategic Plan, October 2001]. Five of these priorities
are topic-based, for example, health [musculo-skeletal disorders and stress]
and safety, while the other three concentrate on particular industries:
agriculture, construction and health services. Its progress will be reviewed
next year.”

Q.
Have you set any targets for achieving these aims, and how long do you think it
will take to see a change in employers’ attitudes?

A.
“I think it will take 10 years to really start seeing a difference, because
health is a complicated issue, and because that is how long it will take to get
systems properly implemented and evaluated. It takes time to change people’s
attitudes and step one is that they have to want to change.”

Q.
Is there a case for the HSE to take a more hard-hitting or shock-tactic
approach in its campaigns, as used in the Campaign for Racial Equality’s 1998
campaign that used stereotypical, negative images of blacks and Asians in the
workforce?

A.
“I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I feel it is a question of different
approaches being appropriate for different issues.

“An
advertising agency has been working with us on our stress campaign. They showed
us that the general perception of stress is already very negative, so we don’t
have to ram the message that there are victims around down people’s throats.
But we want to change that image, so we will be targeting managers who both
experience stress and look after staff in a mentoring role. We’ll be doing this
in a positive way, by showing managers the first steps they can take.”

Q.
Are there other organisations with which you can forge alliances to help get
the message across? Is this something you’re already doing?

A.
“We are working with quite a range of people and organisations. In the first
instance, the key people to reach are those in a position to make a difference,
so we will be working in a much more practical way with employers and
employees.

“In
our stress campaign, for example, some companies have already approached us to
help with the development of management standards, and to help pilot them.
We’ll be working with other stakeholders, such as physio’s, to discuss setting
up projects. And we’ll be working with Government departments to ensure that
these efforts are synchronised, and that people don’t get flooded with lots of
initiatives.”

Q.
 In your experience, which of the seven
key planks that define comprehensive OH support – hazard definition, risk
management, provision of information, modifying work activities, providing
training on OH related issues, measuring workplace hazards, monitoring trends
in health – are companies most likely to have in place? And is it because they
are, by comparison, cheap or straightforward to implement?

A.
“We learned from the survey that the sort of things people are most likely to
implement are hazard definition, risk management and the provision of
information. About 40 per cent of the companies we spoke to have those in
place, but companies need to offer a wider range of support.

“To
do so, they need to start collecting the right data and using that data – not
leaving it to gather dust in someone’s drawer. Once they have that in place,
they can start looking at more complex issues, such as prevention and
rehabilitation.”

Q.
Are there sectors that you consider to be particularly poor at providing OH
support?

A.
“Our research showed that finance, transport, agriculture and retail were poor
providers, while construction gave a lot of support. I was surprised by the
finance industry – these companies don’t seem to think they require
occupational support, but they use a lot of visual display equipment and also
face the risk of repetitive strain injury.

“Having
said that, I think these sectors are probably doing more than they give
themselves credit for, and we need to help them to understand what occupational
health is – it is not about providing a first-aid box as part of your risk
management.”

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