Several times recently people have suggested that common sense is an adequate control measure for some workplace hazards. The United Kingdom’s politicians have been talking about common sense and OHS for several months but perhaps we can apply the broad concept of commonality, implicit in the UK’s advocacy of “common sense”, to OHS information so that people and businesses feel empowered to educate themselves on how to work safety and without risks to health.
Australia’s (seemingly) derailed review of OHS legislation is based on removing red tape but a major focus of OHS reviews in England is
“…putting common sense back at the heart of Britain’s health and safety system…”
Even though reducing bureaucracy is part of the UK review, common sense is certainly the political mantra being applied to the review, being under taken by Professor Ragnar E Löfstedt for the Department of Work and Pensions, as seen by a recent speech by Prime Minister David Cameron to the Conservative Party conference, when discussing the empowerment of local councils:
“…one of the biggest things holding people back is the shadow of health and safety. I was told recently about a school that wanted to buy a set of highlighter pens. But with the pens came a warning. Not so fast – make sure you comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. Including plenty of fresh air and hand and eye protection. Try highlighting in all that.”
In the interview, Bridgen states that people:
“…use health and safety as an excuse not to do things they don’t want to do.”
But the UK is struggling with what to do in response. There has been a strong campaign by the OHS regulator, Health and Safety Executive, to tackle the “elf ‘n’ safety” myths but this will take a long concerted effort and is likely never to succeed completely. Many in the media like reporting about seemingly silly local government and regulatory decisions. This helps depict government as the “fun vampires“.
However the current situation in England, and its echoes in Australia, illustrates the importance of planning for the long term. OHS regulators have been successful in increasing the community awareness of legislative health and safety obligations. Increasingly business owners and OHS professionals will summarise their OHS intentions as “making sure all workers go home in the same condition they arrived” or words to that effect. (I have often wondered how this applies to workers who come to work drunk)
That phrase states the aim but does not explain, or acknowledge, the process needed to achieve the aim. The lack of procedural and management detail has also been missing from the promotional messages of OHS regulators. Outside of, perhaps, trade apprenticeships and unions, workplace health and safety is poorly understood.
Many OHS professionals, particularly those in academia bleat about the need to have OHS in the high school curriculum so that students are aware of their duties and rights before starting work. This is an ideal that is mentioned in the Bridgen interview but one that has been repeated for decades without any success. The education departments acknowledge the argument but, usually, state that there is no room for OHS instruction in an already full curriculum. Some would argue that it is inappropriate to have a curriculum affected by lobby groups, of which the OHS advocates are one. If OHS is “let in” then so could a whole range of single issue advocates.
Unless the Löfstedt recommends time in the curriculum for an adequate level of OHS information and the government accepts the recommendation, the UK OHS regulators and profession will need to look at alternate processes to “educate” the community about health and safety.
The technological world seems to be providing the tools necessary to reach a large number of people in the quickest time at the littlest cost. Regulators and government are in the initial stages of using this technology but they are still seeing the technology as a replacement of existing communications methods rather than a new language that needs new rules.
“…campaign aims to engage the health and safety industry to share their knowledge, experience and expertise to engage with the broader community.
A wonderful opportunity for a community of like-minded individuals to come together, collaborate, network and share resources without having to show up at the same time and place physically.”
The SIA does not have a good reputation for using new technologies well, the website was messy, the discussion forums are clunky and the register of OHS professionals seems little used and poorly known outside the SIA.
A more sustainable web strategy would be to establish a SafetyWiki, a concept that SafetyAtWorkBlog mentioned in 2010 and have advocated publicly elsewhere. The SIA has sufficient links with international OHS organisations such as IOSH and ASSE to establish a SafetyWiki and have members contribute to an OHS resource that is available to everyone. If WikiMedia Foundation can establish the Wikipedia through a non-profit status, it should be possible to build a wiki in the niche category of occupational health and safety.
If OHS regulators and professions are trying to engage the younger members of society in OHS, they must apply the tools with which this demographic are most familiar.
It is standard practice for OHS regulators to make OHS information, forms and processes freely available. This is a fundamental tenet of OHS, one that is very compatible with the Creative Commons movement but has yet to be integrated formally into the “copyleft” philosophy. OHS professionals are strongly critical of Standards organisations that do not make OHS-related Standards freely available. Those individuals are, unknowingly, applying the copyleft philosophy to the common good.
Perhaps it is possible for the UK government to apply a futurist perspective (as Australia’s ISCRR seems to be doing) to the recommendations of the Löfstedt review and revolutionise the access to safety knowledge. Perhaps the OHS professions can translate and communicate this safety knowledge into language that the citizenry and businesses can apply and transform to their own needs at minimal or no cost. Of course this will require the removal of institutional ego, the dismantling of intellectual “turf”, and a change to economic models, perhaps even a revolution in OHS knowledge.
This scenario is unlikely, based on some of the current strategies of some of the OHS institutions and organisations but, as in many areas of social change, if change is not actively sought, change is likely to be imposed and imposition is always more painful.