Forecasting Trends in the OSH World
Sheila Pantry, OBE
Using information to forecast trends is not a new idea. In our occupational safety and health (OSH) world there is a need to recognise early the effect of changes - changing patterns of work - in the number of hours worked per day; the breakaway from the traditional nine-to-five day; the number of hours worked per year; the changes in the working environment, be it new techniques, new industries, or new alliances.
Trends in work pattern and conditions in many countries including those in Europe are shifting quite rapidly. From the information available in surveys it can be seen that the traditional workday is no longer rigid, it is flexible offering benefits to both workers and management.
According to Charles Handy in his book The Empty Raincoat there is now in the UK only 55% of the workforce working the traditional full day; others are working a variation of a work week, often away from the workplace. The world of work is recognising that the "cog in the wheel" is human after all! All this has new implications for those organisations and their managers responsible for health and safety of the workforce. It also has implications for the authorities who must ensure that OSH legislation, guidance and advice is readily available wherever work is carried out.
The public sector in the UK and elsewhere is experiencing Government's attempts to reduce costs by contracting out many of the activities and functions that have traditionally been carried by the core civil service or local government staff. These activities are now being market tested for costs and performance against outside tenders. Organisations are concentrating on their "core" business with the support services being carried out by others.
The OSH literature grows at a pace with many articles describing the results of research on subjects such as the relationship between work and stress related illnesses. There is plenty of evidence available over a long period of time on a host of subjects which can be checked out in the various databases such as NIOSHTICS, CISDOC and HSELINE. For example legislation and work is still being carried out on asbestos, despite the fact that two lady inspectors as far back as 1898/9 declared that:
"the evil effects of asbestos dust ... have been found to be injurious, as might be expected ... In dusty trades the worker may continue for a very long time apparently unaffected, before the symptoms of the evil become marked".
"Carbon copy" accidents are repeatedly cited in the literature yet how many of our workers are aware of this information? Training and retraining will keep the risks in front of the workers' minds and the constant auditing of the workplace will emphasis the necessary steps to be taken both by managers and workers to improve the working environment. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 provide legislative support to an effective approach to managing health and safety in all aspects of work conditions.
The endless outpourings from many organisations in the UK - the Health and Safety Executive and other OSH organisations such as the British Safety Council, ROSPA etc are there to be read and used. Authors such as Trevor Kletz have written repeatedly about accidents waiting to happen - yet how many of the newcomers to the OSH field know about these "Golden Oldies" and their warnings? They will find that details exist in the databases and compact discs (CD-ROMS) such as HSELINE, NIOSHTICS, CISDOC, OSH-ROM and OSH-UK which cite the many publications which have been produced over the years.
Understanding and applying the information is another problem, but in the eyes of the law "ignorance is no excuse". Again using your own existing data in your workplace should prompt some action in estimating where the next accident, injury or problem is likely to occur.
Consider the lessons to be learned from the HSE report The Costs to the British economy of work accidents and work-related ill health where it shows that the the cost to employers equates to between five and ten per cent of all UK industrial companies gross trading profits in 1990. How much is that in real figures to your own company? The HSE Statistical Report for 1992/3 states that the results from the Trailer Questionnaire attached to the Labour Force Survey 1990 show that musculo-skeletal disorders were the most commonly recorded self reported work-related illness.
It further states that the highest risk occupations were coal mining, followed by construction and nursing. Transport, security, processing (metals and electrical), farming, fishing and forestry and 'other' occupations were also significantly above average with rates ranging from 3% to 4.5% of workers affected. How much is this costing your organisation? Again there are many pieces of guidance and advice available to ensure that these problems can be avoided or reduced.
Once risk assessments have been carried out in accordance with the guidelines and necessary improvements in working practices made, which may require the training and retraining of the workers, then the benefits of reduced accidents and ill-health will be reflected in the "bottomline" of the organisation's balance sheet. Many of the audit packages (both computerised and paper based) which are available help the OSH manager to move more quickly in assessing and continuously assessing where the problems are and finding solutions for them.
The ageing of the population is a strong trend throughout Europe. This trend also affects the workforce and leads to an increasing number of companies to rethink their human resources policies, their training policies, the work organisation and the design of the workplace. In 1991 there was a European Colloquium Ageing at work held in Paris at which representatives from a number of countries discussed these topics, and in their conclusions described some of the possible answers to the new challenges that ageing of the workforce has presented to companies.
Organisations and information
Perhaps the range of organisations issuing OSH information is not known to everyone, particularly those newly entering the field. Government departments and agencies such as the UK Health and Safety Executive, the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry are prime producers of OSH information. Other organisations on an International or European level will also be valuable sources of OSH information. Major producers are the International Labour Office in Geneva, The Commission of the European Union in Luxembourg, The World Health Organisation, the International Social Security Association, the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions. They all issue a wide range of publications written by experts.
Membership of organisations such as the British Safety Council, the Fire Prevention Association, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, The Royal Society of Prevention of Accidents to name a few would be of use. Membership would be one way of keeping up-to-date and also having access to other working in the field.
The Health and Safety Executive Information Services issues a free list entitled Organisations concerned with health and safety information. It gives details of organisations, addresses, telephone and fax numbers, contact person, status of organisation, principle functions and activities. A useful reference source for the busy OSH manager!
The old adage that there is really nothing new under the sun may not be totally true as far as OSH problems go. But somewhere in the existing mountain of OSH information there may be answers to similar problems which may help you with your particular problem. Keeping up-to-date with the latest available information which identify the changes and trends will ensure that today's OSH manager is well prepared to meet all challenges.
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