Accentuating The Differences Between Health And Safety
Since the inception of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, there has been a successful drive to bring a responsible attitude towards fundamental health and safety processes to both employers and employees. As a result we now look on health and safety warnings and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as normal, realistic practices that save lives. But is it entirely accurate to assume that health and safety is a marriage of equals?
Seeing the signs
It is common for safety to come to the fore of statistics because the effects are immediate and more instantly measureable; for example, a gas leak can cause asphyxiation and ultimately death. Essentially the visibility of injuries as a result of safety failings can make it easier for these to have an impact on attitudes and behaviour in the workplace - an employee who has witnessed a colleague suffer a head injury as a result of falling scaffolding is more likely to remember this incident and think twice when deciding to wear protective headgear. The effects of safety are predominantly short term.
However, it is far harder to understand the impact of health failings when a majority of these result from an ‘invisible killer’. In the construction industry alone, 3,500 occupational cancer deaths every year are as a result of exposure to hazardous substances that are formed from everyday construction tasks, including solder and colophony fumes, stainless steel welding fumes and woodwork dusts.  The ‘invisible’ nature of the health message has resulted in the need for strong campaigns such as the BOHS Breathe Freely coverage which has seen success as a result of spokespeople such as Simon Clark who, as a former electrician is now suffering from mesothelioma, having been exposed to asbestos over 30 years ago at work.
According to the HSE statistics from 2014/15, 1.2 million working people suffered from a work-related illness while 611,000 injuries occurred at work according to the Labour Force Survey. The impacts of health hazards are predominantly shown in long term latency effects, such as the particulates breathed in over a number of years by employees in the coal mining industry or the prevalence of asbestos in older buildings. Each of these can and do lead to chronic illnesses over many years and subsequent death.
Monitoring ‘invisible killers’
The prevalence of safety signs on construction sites are a constant reminder that on entering a site, employees must be wearing PPE including a safety helmet, protective footwear and high visibility vests. However, it is less common to encounter engrained health awareness in the same scenarios that suggest to employees they should be wearing equipment to monitor their exposure to dust levels, fumes or other respiratory hazards on a regular basis. In order to combat ‘invisible killers’, health must benefit from a similar targeted awareness programme to safety that is aimed at the unique impacts of long latency health concerns so that neither health nor safety result in avoidable deaths. ISO 45001 is expected in October this year as the new global health and safety standard designed to improve work environments and reduce workplace deaths. This will raise awareness towards occupational health and long term exposure effects to dust and noise. We hope that businesses will soon recognise the need for effective monitoring solutions and realise that they really do save lives.
Without regular monitoring of employee exposure, it is far harder to demonstrate that there have been improvements in combatting health hazards. By introducing regular monitoring, health risks can be afforded the same attention and respect as safety but in a way that recognises the difference in long and short term latency impacts to the benefit of employee welfare.