Mark Preston tells us how safety management systems should become health and safety management systems in light of some startling statistics

For many years now businesses and industry have taken great strides in reducing accident rates and developing safety management systems, and whilst there is obviously still a long way to go there is rather a large elephant in the room, something that kills more than accidents, causes damages to lives and is a growing issue at work.

Looking at HSE statistics it is clear that people who die or suffer from health related issues vastly outnumber those who are killed or injured as a result of work place accidents. HSE statistics for 2014/15 indicate that 142 workers were killed at work with 76,000 other injuries reported under Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). According to the Labour Force Survey there were 611,000 injuries at work of which 152,000 led to over 7-day absence. Whilst these are figures we still need to address compare that to a matter that the majority of companies still do not address adequately.

2014/15 statistics indicate that 1.2 million people who worked during the previous year were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by their work, of which 0.5 million were new conditions that started during the year. In 2013, 2,538 people died from mesothelioma (a form of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos). It is also suggested that 80 per cent of new work-related conditions were musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression or anxiety, yet we still talk about ensuring we have a Safety Management System in place. Shouldn’t we talk about a health and safety management system, instead?

The construction industry are even taking notice about the issue of mental health in construction with the Health in Construction Leadership Group being set up to help address work-related ill health in construction. In April over 150 leaders responsible for health and safety in the UK construction industry met to agree plans to help address the shocking statistic that UK construction workers are 100 times more likely to die from work related ill health than accidents. During the conference it was Heather Bryant, Health and Safety Director of Balfour Beatty who said, “The next step forward is to treat health like its safety”. What a great phrase and one that should be used across all UK industry, particularly when it comes to musculoskeletal and mental health issues?

So ask yourself this when it comes to safety management, do we have a risk in our workplace regarding musculoskeletal issues or mental health in our workplace? Do we include these issues in our health and safety management system and if so how high in priority are these two issues? Do we proactively manage these issues?

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What’s happening right now?

Unfortunately research finds employers are taking a reactive approach to employees’ mental health problems, despite the fact that, as with safety, preventative steps make better business sense

Research by the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, indicates that the number of people saying that they have experienced mental health problems while in employment has climbed from a quarter to a third over the last five years.

So while there appears to be a growing awareness around health issues, which is apparent in the self-reporting of such issues, there appears to be little affirmation by organisations of the scale of the problem and how they will proactively deal with the issues.

Despite growing awareness, the majority of employees still don’t feel that people experiencing mental health issues are supported well enough at work.

Often proactively dealing with mental health issues is about putting in place small adjustments such as regular communication (remember those home workers) and flexible working hours. Allowing staff to have a break from those smart phones and emails is necessary for modern working, and being able to identify and support a colleague who is struggling can also be hugely helpful to address situations.

Managing fatigue at work by software intervention

Studies have shown that scheduled breaks were generally more effective than leaving workers to take breaks at their own discretion. Rest break software has been created to coach and encourage workers to take the breaks they need to avoid fatigue.

This type of software targets different types of fatigue, but gives users the ability to customise their own plan. The user chooses a setting that best represents their needs and then they have the ability to enhance this with custom reminders and content. Breaks range from stretch breaks, to short-cut key tips, to world news. The software measures the time and intensity to which employees engage with their computer. If the computer user works for too long without taking a natural break, the software will advise that they need to take a micro-break. The goal of the software is to raise consciousness in a natural, non-forced way that a small break is needed. Computer users get feedback on their computer usage and intensity and the software lets them know what they are doing well and what they could improve on to have more comfort and energy. Admins can view statistics to see how employees are doing and better target which departments could use more coaching and support.

The proactive feedback closes the loop for an organisation between providing a tool to take breaks, to providing feedback on the actual usage of the tool, to responsibility of taking breaks on part of the individual employee.

Across the pond

This isn’t just a UK problem of course, it is a global issue and we are seeing other countries taking action when it comes to stress related issues in particular.

For example, in the USA numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. In New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged, that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work-related injury and is compensated accordingly (including a heart attack sustained while fishing on vacation or gambling in Las Vegas).

It can be so much easier to tackle the safety issues, often because they’re simpler to identify, get hold of and act upon. Yet it’s important to start including health issues as part of our health and safety management system for the reasons addressed above. By treating health like it is safety we may force senior management to help confront these two issues that appear to be growing in significance. So when it comes to health issues make sure that you have an agreed approach to the issues, supported not only by senior management but understood by all line management. Develop your health and safety management system to tackle every risk not just that of safety.

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Want to see how you can implement health measures in your work environment? Speak to our safety consultants today.

This article features in the Autumn/Winter 2016 edition of Cardinus Connect, our free risk magazine. Download your copy here.

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