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What Are The Societal Factors Influencing Health & Safety Priorities?

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As we all know, Health and Safety does not exist in a vacuum; it affects the lives of people and it is itself affected by different concerns and pressures, amongst which are the economy, both global and national, new developments in technology and industry, innovations in management philosophy and changes in the attitudes of society in general and workers in particular.

Changes in societal attitudes can have long-lasting consequences on the field of health and safety. Consider the change in how smoking is viewed – fifty years ago, it was considered a part of everyday life, unremarked upon and in some cases seen as a signifier of sophistication and maturity. Nowadays, smokers are vastly outnumbered by those who view the habit as dirty, coarse and extremely hazardous to health. Legislation has swung against it in a very significant fashion and the places where it can be indulged in are getting fewer by the day.

Developments in science, medicine and technology also affect the way in which the health and safety professional carries out their job. Although it has been known for a long time that asbestos was harmful to health, the substance was not banned until a few years ago and cases of illness associated with it are predicted to continue to rise as those who were exposed to it develop fatal conditions. Now, we have legislation in place to protect workers who might come into contact with it.

Demographic changes have reshaped the workplace in recent years, and with these changes have come a new set of challenges for the health and safety professional. More women are now involved in the workplace, in different sectors and at different levels. As well as requiring specific protection, in the case of pregnancy and VDUs, they may also need different sized PPE and tools. They may also bring a perspective to work and to the question of safety that differs considerably from that of the formerly male-dominated workplace.

With economically precarious times come changed priorities at work; it may be that safety breaches or lax practices are not challenged because workers have a fear of losing their jobs and prefer to keep quiet about something that may well cause injury or death.

The Economic Climate:

It must have escaped nobody’s attention that we are going through a very difficult economic phase indeed. Companies are sailing very close to the wind financially and we have seen some very big names go under in the past couple of years.

It can be imagined therefore, that when looking for ways to cut costs, management are going to be casting glances towards the easy targets – the departments which cost but are not seen to produce. Unfortunately, those glances are short-sighted if they earmark areas such as training and health and safety for cutbacks. Nevertheless, in desperate situations, many companies take desperate measures and this can mean that in the future, two things will become apparent:

  • Health and Safety professionals are going to find their positions more precarious and those positions that do exist will be harder to find and more vigorously contested.
  • Many companies are going to find themselves without adequate provision when it comes to Health and Safety advice.

As well as a reduction in the provision of Health and Safety coverage within businesses, there is also the degree to which government policy will have an effect. Every department of government is feeling the pinch of the austerity package and Health and Safety will not be immune from this.

The question now is “but how will the safety professional be affected?”


Government Policy & Initiatives:

Governments formulate policy and initiatives to push through their vision of how society should evolve and develop. The Robens Report which ushered in the Health and Safety at Work Act was requested by the Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle. The major developments in Health and Safety legislation during the 1980s and 1990s, known colloquially as the Six Pack were government’s legislative responses to European Directives.

Initiatives in other areas can impact on Health and Safety. In 2008, Dame Carol Black authored the report Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, which was jointly published by the Department of Health and the Department of Work and Pensions. This joint publication signified the degree to which the link between work and health was accepted and taken seriously by government.

In 2009, the then-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions James Purnelle asked Rita Donaghy to conduct an Inquiry into the underlying causes of fatal accidents in the construction industry as a response to the “unacceptable level of fatalities”. Her report, One Death is Too Many, was widely acclaimed within the Health and Safety industry.

The Young Report.

As a result of the change of government in 2010 and the degree of public prejudice against the simplistic portrayal of Health and Safety, fuelled by elements of the press, Lord Young was given the task of conducting a review of health and safety legislation and regulation with a view to reducing its impact on business and streamlining certain aspects of its administration.

His report was accepted in full by the government and in a publication called Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone, released in March 2011, several proposals were outlined. One of these was for a register of Health and Safety consultants, which will be covered later in this module. Another significant proposal was that which concerned H&S inspections. It read as follows:

Targeting and reducing inspections.

The Government has identified three categorizations of non-major hazard industries:

1. Those sectors which present comparatively high risk and where, in our judgement, proactive inspection remains necessary as part of the overall regulatory approach;

2. Those sectors where there remains comparatively high risk but proactive inspection is not considered a useful component of future interventions; and

3. Those areas where proactive inspection is not justified in terms of outcomes.

The categorisations set out above will inevitably change in their composition over time e.g. as an industrial sector improves its health and safety record, or as new industries with new health and safety challenges emerge.

However, based on current analysis, the categorisations would result in the following groupings:

1. Comparatively high risk areas where proactive intervention to be retained. The major areas for inclusion are currently considered to be construction, waste and recycling, and areas of manufacturing which are high risk e.g. molten and base metal manufacture;

2. Areas of concern but where proactive inspection is unlikely to be effective and is not proposed e.g. agriculture, quarries, and health and social care; and

3. Lower risk areas where proactive inspection will no longer take place. These areas include low risk manufacturing (e.g. textiles, clothing, footwear, light engineering, electrical engineering), the transport sector (e.g. air, road haulage and docks), local authority administered education provision, electricity generation and the postal and courier services.

HSE will reduce its proactive inspections by one third (around 11,000 inspections per year) through better targeting based on hard evidence of effectiveness based on these categorisations. As now, HSE will work closely with industry bodies to manage and control specific health and safety risks, looking to industry to take the lead so that HSE can concentrate its own interventions on those areas where it has a unique contribution to make. In both areas (i) and (ii), HSE will continue to undertake inspections for enforcement purposes or to follow up complaints when such an intervention appears to be necessary. The basis on which HSE follows up complaints from workers and the public about health and safety and investigates incidents will be unchanged.

No industrial areas will be exempted from maintaining good standards of health and safety. Employers who do not take the protection of their employers, or those affected by their work activities, seriously will still face intervention by HSE.

Cost recovery for breaches of the law.

The Government believes that it is reasonable that businesses that are found to be in serious breach of health and safety law – rather than the taxpayer – should bear the related costs incurred by the regulator in helping them put things right. A cost recovery principle will provide a deterrent to those who would otherwise fail to meet their obligations and a level playing field for those who do.

It is proposed that HSE will recover all of the costs of an inspection/investigation at which a serious, material breach in standards is diagnosed and a requirement to rectify is formally made, together with the cost of any follow-up work. Businesses that are in compliance with the law will not be liable for any kind of charge as a result of an HSE inspection and there will be no recovery in relation to purely technical breaches. An appeal system will be operated by HSE in relation to any disputes over cost recovery.

The Government also intends to allow HSE to cost-recover from business in relation to services it provides which are a necessary part of the process of land development.

In consequence, HSE will recover its full costs for acting as a statutory consultee for land use planning applications and hazardous substance consents. It is also proposed for HSE to charge where it provides initial advice to large development projects at the request of developers.

The Globalisation of Business:

Globalisation is the growing interdependence between the economies and businesses of different countries. Globalisation has been growing for centuries and in particular since the end of the World War II. It is driven by many factors, but key amongst those that have driven the major increase over the last decade or so are improved communications, cheap travel and transport, deregulation of trade barriers and development within individual economies. The former Department for Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) considers globalisation to be good for the UK and to benefit developing countries too.

However, developments since late 2007 illustrate just how vulnerable economic stability can be. The credit crunch, resulting in a decline in demand for goods and fluctuations in oil prices is threatening the current globalisation model. The current recession could lead in the short term to a rise in economic protectionism, which will delay recovery through a dampening effect on international trade. There are some signs of this, although the G7 ministers and the G20 leaders have pledged to work against protectionism. The continued failure of the Doha Development Round – talks aimed at further reducing trade barriers, is also a factor limiting further progress, particularly for developing countries but with less direct impact on the UK.

While it is generally predicted that the recession will eventually ease, in the longer term, the future of globalisation is not so clear. Increasing wage levels in developing economies, coupled with factors such as more stringent environmental and other legislation could mean that it may not always be so attractive to transport goods halfway round the world, especially if the price of oil were to show an upward trend in the future, resulting in increasing transport costs.

Relevance to occupational safety and health.

Globalisation is not itself a health and safety issue, but it drives many changes that may impinge on health and safety.

For example:

The current trend away from manufacturing in the UK has been driven by low labour costs and the increasing skills and capability overseas and by cheap transport. Could a reversal bring about a revival in manufacturing in Britain or will skills and capability losses continue?

The increase in offshoring of knowledge based jobs, driven by cheap labour and cheaper and improved communications and leading to shifting workplace demographics in the UK and man- agement issues of dispersed workforces.

A global economy impacts on our working patterns – the need to be always available to cope with time differences can impinge on work/life balance. The need to deal with other cultures and other languages places additional psychosocial demands on workers.

Globalisation affects migration of workers from one country to another. Migrant workers can be at higher risk than indigenous workers. Illegal migrants could be at higher risk still.

The increasing length of supply chains as goods made overseas pass through complex outsourcing networks make it difficult to monitor the quality, authenticity and traceability, which could lead to health and safety problems resulting from their use, while at the same time making it difficult for HSE to deal direct with manufacturers. The lack of customs checks across the EU could add to difficulties.

Foreign direct investment into Britain – the purchase of British companies by overseas owners – may result in the importing of different health and safety cultures. Although bound by UK law in this country, they may not always appreciate the importance attached to health and safety.

Major changes in global trade could have significant impacts on the UK economy, driving societal change. Gordon Brown, when Chancellor in 2007, claimed that unskilled Britons would find themselves without jobs in ten years as a result of globalisation. UK competitiveness in a global market is one of the uncertainty axes in HSE’s Scenarios for the Future of Health and Safety in 2017.

Migrant Workers:

Although there are no precise figures for the number of new migrants in the labour force, the available statistics suggest that their number is growing and that in some regions and in some industrial sectors or occupations, they form a significant section of the workforce. The geographical spread of migrant workers is much wider than even a few years ago. Migrants are no longer found only in large conurbations but increasingly are working in rural areas or in regions that have had little or no previous history of migration, whether temporarily or for settlement.

There is no current method of identifying whether there are any specific health and safety risks for migrant workers. Existing Health and Safety Executive (HSE) programmes and recording systems only report a limited number of workplace incidents and there is no systematic way of identifying whether someone is a recent migrant. Consequently it is impossible to document, on the basis of the available statistics, whether migrants are in a higher risk category than local workers. Some workers, not just migrants, are exposed to risks at work, due to the nature of their work. Thus the research does not claim that the risks inherent in a particular type of work of necessity only present themselves in relation to migrant workers.

However, what it does reveal is that migrants are more likely to be working in sectors or occupations where there are existing health and safety concerns and that it is their status as new workers that may place them at added risk, due to their:

  • Relatively short periods of work in the UK;
  • Limited knowledge of the UK’s health and safety system;
  • Different experiences of health and safety regimes in countries of origin;
  • Motivations in coming to the UK, particularly where these are premised on earning as much as possible, in the shortest possible time;
  • Ability to communicate effectively with other workers and with supervisors, particularly in relation to their understanding of risk;
  • Access to limited health and safety training and their difficulties in understanding what is being offered, where proficiency in English is limited;
  • Failure of employers to check on their skills for work and on their language skills;
  • Employment relationships and unclear responsibilities for health and safety, in particular where workers are supplied by recruitment agencies or labour providers or are self- employed; and
  • Lack of knowledge of health and safety rights and how to raise them, including knowledge of the channels through which they can be represented.

Health and safety training.

More than a third of the migrants had not received any training in health and safety and for the remaining two-thirds the training that had been offered was generally limited to a short session at induction. But there were some differences by sector, for example those in Public Healthcare had longer periods of induction training and were more likely to be offered ongoing training.

Communicating health and safety training where there is no common language presents challenges to employers and some had responded by developing means of conveying information through non-verbal mediums. Migrant workers particularly welcomed visual aids, as they could overcome the limitations that a lack of English presented. However, the greater the range of methods used to communicate, the more successful they were perceived to be by the workers interviewed. Any single method used exclusively was unlikely to deliver a comprehensive message, understood by all workers.

The system of health and safety in the workplace.

There was a widespread lack of knowledge of basic health and safety procedures, including fire safety. Although most workers had been provided with some protective clothing, this often failed to take account of the fact that workers had difficulty in acclimatising themselves to the different environmental conditions they experienced in the UK, in contrast to their own country. In addition, since many migrant workers had not previously worked in the occupations they were following in the UK, acclimatisation was sometimes a difficulty, particularly where migrants did not possess suitable clothing even though they were working outside or inside but in chill departments. Allocation to the least desirable work also meant that workers were more likely to be working in areas that experienced extremes of temperature. Workers consequently fell ill more frequently and in general believed that their health had suffered as a consequence of the work they were doing.

Those working with chemicals in general had little knowledge of what they were composed of and formal training was not necessarily sufficient, especially where technical language was used to explain the nature of the risk.

A relatively high proportion (one in four) of migrant workers had either themselves experienced an accident at work or had witnessed accidents involving migrant co-workers. This suggests a higher level of accidents than would be experienced by UK workers. Most of these accidents involved cuts, falls and slips and were sometimes said to have been associated with fatigue, most usually brought about by long working hours. Migrants also said that they would often not report accidents that had occurred, as they were concerned that employers might view them as a risk and dismiss them. In the case of those who were working without documents, a fear of deportation was also given as a reason for not reporting accidents.

In some of the sectors surveyed it appears that migrants were under-estimating the risks they faced in the jobs they were doing. Those who were undertaking work which they perceived as below their qualifications or skills, tended to be less conscious of the risks associated with the jobs they were doing and thus took fewer measures to avoid risks. Consequently when considering strategies aimed at reducing health and safety risks it may be important to take account of whether or not the migrant worker is engaged in a sector in which she or he has had previous experience.

In some cases, where labour shortages had been experienced in the past, employers reported that the presence of a migrant labour force which could provide stability to the workplace had helped to reduce accident levels and that they had been able to demonstrate this through a decline in their own accident rates. Some employers also pointed to the fact that migrant workers who were better skilled or educated took a more responsible approach to work, which also could prevent accidents. Where accidents had occurred these were said to be in the early period of employment, in particular in relation to young workers.

Appropriate health and safety for a transient workforce.

The investigation of health and safety incidents is made more difficult where there is little incentive for the migrant worker to remain in the UK and that is more likely to be the case where the incident would require time off work. Since the primary purpose of migration is to earn money, remaining in the UK without being able to work appears to serve no useful purpose to the migrant worker who is generally faced with higher living costs in this country. The migrant workers interviewed rarely had access to occupational sick pay or knowledge of its existence. However, this lack of provision and knowledge potentially is advantageous to employers who are thus less likely to be challenged by compensation claims and importantly are less vulnerable in the event of an HSE inspection, if the worker to whom questions can be put is no longer available.


  1. Working for a Healthier Tomorrow By Dame Carol Black
  2. One Death is Too Many By Rita Donaghy
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Health & Safety Executive (HSE)





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