Fit for purpose20 March 2014

Keeping your people and your balance sheet healthy – that is the central challenge of occupational health and safety, as Ian Vallely explains.

Twenty people died in manufacturing industry in the past year. A further 13,713 suffered non-fatal injuries and around 72,000 self-reported injuries. About 3.1 million working days were lost in 2011—12: 2.3 million due to ill health and 787,000 through injury, making a total of 1.2 days lost per worker. This appalling toll of death and injury is bad enough. What makes it worse is the fact that 70% of the deaths could have been prevented by positive management action.

So, even allowing for plant failure and unexpected human behaviour, 14 people might still be alive today if managers had measured up to their responsibilities over the last 12 months. And, these figures don't take into account deaths and disability caused by occupational diseases such as respiratory complaints resulting from toxic chemicals, dust and fumes, or back injuries sustained because of bad working practices.

Costing the earth
In 2012—13, manufacturing accounted for about 10% of the British workforce, but for almost one in five fatalities and reported injuries to employees. Quite apart from the human toll in death and misery, poor occupational health and safety practice costs manufacturers millions in lost working hours.

Every company is required by law to produce a written safety policy and it is the manager's job to ensure that the policy is implemented and run correctly. This calls for awareness of the problem, commitment to an action plan, the drive and enthusiasm to see the plans through, and continuous monitoring and assessment of workplace safety.

Proof of a company's commitment to health and safety can be seen in the manager's awareness of safety legislation and the wellbeing of their staff. But too many plant managers are looking at their feet and not at the horizon. They are caught up in running production lines today and miss opportunities to boost the welfare of their staff in the mid- to long-term.

Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical advisor at manufacturers' organisation the EEF, has devised a useful structure for managing occupational heatlth and safety in the workplace. He uses the acronym ASSETS (see below) to describe what he believes causes the operations director sleepless nights or hassle. "The reason for thinking about this in terms of ASSETS is that it enables you to identify what is causing your employees problems – not what you think causes them problems," he explains. "You can then identify what you need as a priority in terms of occupational health and safety."

There are, he says, five core work-related diseases: noise induced hearing loss; vibration white finger (more properly known as hand arm vibration syndrome, HAV); skin diseases (such as dermatitis); respiratory diseases (like occupational asthma); and occupational cancers (around 2,000 deaths each year result from past exposure in the manufacturing sector).

And there are two more: "The big five are definitely caused by work, whereas the two extra – common mental health problems [stress, anxiety and depression] and musculoskeletal disorders [back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain etc] – might also be about lifestyle."

These seven fit into Khan's ASSETS model, as he explains: "For example, people who have hearing problems may be at greater risk of accidents on the shopfloor. Equally, scrap rates might rise because of, say, poor vision among members of your workforce. If you're not screening people and they have respiratory problems, or if they are don't turn up to work because of stress, that has a big impact on sickness absence. The same applies to musculoskeletal disorders."

And Khan continues: "Employee relations – if you have a poor working environment, people get unhappy and don't perform so well... On timeliness, if people have chronic diseases and they are not being properly treated by their GP, then that will impact on meeting deadlines."

When it comes to combining the ASSETS model with the 'five plus two' diseases, it makes sense to consider this on three levels. First, value for money. This is legislative: you are required under the Health and Safety at Work Act etc to take steps to protect your employees. This is not an optional extra – if you choose not to comply, you are liable under criminal law. This level is reactive.

Secondly, value-added. Empowering your health and safety, and occupational health practitioners helps reduce costs and/or increase productivity. That is linked in with the sickness absence element of ASSETS. Khan explains: "That means getting people back to work as early as possible from their sickness absence, or helping them with the treatment of chronic diseases so they perform better. You are then adding value." This level is proactive.

Thirdly, value creating. This is about making your business successful and sustainable, and enhancing employee performance. Khan again: "It is more to do with targeted training. For example, if you are having problems with employee relations or sickness absence or accidents – because people are stressed – what are you doing about stress awareness training in your line managers, so that you can spot the problems before they get too serious?" This level is preventive and enhancing.

Value creation also involves training employees to help them cope with life and make them aware of lifestyle issues that will impact on their health and safety, such as trying to burn the candle at both ends. As Khan puts it: "The big word in this whole area is the employee's 'wellbeing'. It is much more holistic, recognising the person as a whole, along with elements, which may be work- or non-work-related that impact on their health and wellbeing." And he adds: "This is not soft: it can save you money or prevent you from losing money."

But only if effective training is implemented. Khan used to be an HSE commissioner: "When we inspected accidents, time and again we would find employee error or cases where employees weren't wearing the right kit, or they overrode the machine's safety interlock. Problems on these sorts of behavioural areas can be mitigated by training."

And he advocates a holistic approach to well-being: "What are you doing to promote the positive well-being of the person? Do you do well-person checks, education about cancers, things that are not necessarily to do with work, but have implications for health? If you offer these sorts of services, they won't necessarily make a fundamental difference to sickness absence, but they will promote good health, good safety practice and well-being which, in turn, will benefit your business by tackling the ASSETS."

A – Accidents
S – Scrap rates (non-conformance in quality)
S – Sickness absence
E – Employee relations
T – Timeliness (meeting deadlines)
S – Strategy

What is occupational health?
Occupational health (OH) specialists provide independent, impartial advice to employers and employees on the effects of work on health and the effects of health on work, according to the Society of Occupational Medicine. It says that OH services:
- Help prevent work-related ill health
- Advise on fitness for work, workplace safety, the prevention of occupational injuries and disease
- Recommend appropriate adjustments in the workplace to help people stay in work
- Improve the attendance and performance of the workforce
- Provide rehabilitation to help people return to work and advise on alternative suitable work for people with health problems
- Promote health in the workplace and healthy lifestyles
- Recommend and implement policies to maintain a safe and healthy workplace
- Conduct research into work related health issues
- Ensure compliance with health and safety regulations
- Advise on medical health and ill-health retirement

Ian Vallely

Related Companies
EEF (Engineering Employers Federation)

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