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  • International Workplace
  • 18 November 2020
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Approach to health and safety needs a drastic rethink following HSE statistics

The British Occupational Hygiene Society, a scientific charity and chartered body for worker health protection, has responded to the publication of the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive with a call for a radical overhaul of the UK’s approach to occupational health, calling instead for “sustainable workplace health strategies” for each of the UK’s nations.

The figures released by Great Britain’s regulator highlight the loss of over £10.6bn to British industry, almost 40 million days lost to illness and 12,000 deaths a year from work-related lung disease alone. The society is particularly concerned that, despite years of effort to address respiratory illness, the decline in the number of deaths over the last decade has not been significant. Indeed, it points out that deaths from Interstitial Lung Disease are actually on the increase.

The figures, which were compiled from data that was collected before the COVID-19 crisis, lead the society to be extremely worried that the current virus may be sharpening and deepening the impact of long-term health exposure, based on research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. That research, released early in the pandemic, highlighted a number of diseases with strong occupational links to poorer outcomes for COVID-19 patients.

The society is calling for a rethink of the current approach that invests heavily in trying to treat occupational illness and disproportionately focuses on safety. Instead, the society believes that prevention of health risk as part of national strategies for sustainable workplace health is required.

Says the society’s President Kelvin Williams:

“In every other environment, we have come to understand that prevention, long-term thinking and sustainability are key to effective measures. However, within the workplace, we are still thinking in a short-term way. It simply does not make sense to carry on with an investment in occupational health that ignores the vital importance of preventing risks to health in the first place. For example, in construction we think about the carbon footprint of building materials and even the welfare on site, yet we still plan to build in a way that generates cancer-causing construction dusts and then have to deal with the consequences. The figures speak for themselves.

“There is so much focus on the immediate hazards that we miss the big dangers that are looming for us in the future and the huge opportunity we have to enable people to age well, not to be dependent on sickness benefits and work without fear.”

The society is calling for a national dialogue and government focus on:

  • Designing out health risks at work;
  • Focusing research on prevention and control of workplace health hazards;
  • Using an understanding of human factors and their role in helping people manage their own health protection at work;
  • Targeting enhanced occupational health services to those who need it most;
  • Embedding occupational hygiene and occupational medicine in mainstream healthcare training and education; and
  • Working with healthcare to develop a whole life strategy for managing occupational health and occupational hygiene exposures.

Says BOHS CEO Kevin Bampton:

“People would be surprised that in the 21st century, we are still missing obvious opportunities to curb the risk of being exposed to common hazards. We can so easily avoid so many cruel illnesses that will rob thousands of their loved ones and cost the country billions in benefits, healthcare costs and lost work.

“At a time where the country’s finances are likely to be stretched for decades because of the cost of COVID-19, we need to be planning to avoid a continuing legacy of avoidable ill health. The measures don’t need to cost employers or the government more. It just requires a different mindset. We find the case for sustainability in every aspect of our lives. It’s time it was a central feature of our workplace health strategies across the UK’s nations.”

Added Mr Williams, who has led much of the society’s response to coronavirus:

“For many people, the workplace is the environment where we spend most of our waking lives. Lockdown has highlighted that how and where we work can be different. COVID-19 has demonstrated that this is the place in our lives where our exposure to health hazards can be most effectively regulated. It does not take a great amount of imagination to envisage UK becoming the global leader in sustainable workplace health technology and practice, based on what we have achieved over the period of the pandemic. That would be a worthwhile legacy of this painful time in our history.”