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Why going home safe at the end of the day is not enough

12 February 2014

Despite their long association, health has always been something of a poor relation to safety. In part this is because health issues are notoriously hard to measure and therefore manage.

The delay between exposure to a hazard and the onset of disease can make it difficult to assess control measures and the fact that some work-related ill health conditions can also be attributed to genetics or factors outside of work further muddies the waters. But are we also guilty of aiming too low when it comes to work-related ill health?

An increasing body of thought thinks so. The HSE’s Triennial Review, which published its findings in January, concluded that the HSE must step up its efforts on work-related ill health; and with good reason. As BSIF CEO David Lummis explains in his latest column occupational health figures make grim reading. It is estimated that 13,000 people die each year from diseases caused by past exposures at work and 1.1 million people who worked during the last year have been suffering from an illness they believed to have been caused by, or made worse by, their job. 0.5 million of these were new conditions which started during the year; clearly more needs to be done.

Thankfully the troops are mobilising. Having identified that many employers are failing to successfully manage stress and psychosocial issues at work (almost half of European workers surveyed said that stress is not handled well in their workplace) EU-OSHA has put this issue at the heart of its latest Healthy Workplaces campaign. ‘Managing stress and psychosocial risks at work’  launches in April and will provide employers with practical tools to help them manage work-related stress.

Meanwhile the BOHS, The Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, is campaigning persistently for workplace health issues to be given greater recognition, most recently calling on the government, employers and worker representatives to help them eliminate occupational cancer in the UK. Safety Groups, IOSH and the BSIF have also all been striving to improve engagement in work-related health issues.

Hopefully their efforts will be bolstered by the focus The World Economic Forum in Davos brought on health issues at its inaugural Health Summit this January. Speaking ahead of the summit, Robert Greenhill, managing director of the World Economic Forum said he wanted to convince global decision makers that good health is, "one of the most pressing social and economic issues of the day” urging: "The time is right to elevate the conversation on health.” 

As we begin the 40th Anniversary year of the Health and Safety At Work Act, maybe the time is also right to elevate expectations in terms of work-related ill health. As well as ensuring workers go home safe at the end of the working day surely it’s time to make sure workers also go home healthy at the end of the month, the year and ultimately their working life?