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The challenges of getting the workplace health agenda right

There’s been quite a gap since my last blog, due in large measure to my having to take time out to deal with a close family illness, so it is perhaps fitting that my first blog for some time should be on the subject of health.

I was interested to see recent media coverage of comments from Dame Carole Black which implied that in lots of workplaces bosses are not getting it right when it comes to workplace health issues. Dame Carole’s remarks focussed on those who promote five a day diets and the like rather than dealing with the real issues in their workplace which cause sickness absence, including mental health problems caused by stress.

We have seen a significant increase recently in the number of Occupational Safety and Health organisations who are now actively engaged in getting their members and stakeholders to address the real priority workplace health issues – especially the really harmful and often long latency exposures which can lead to life changing and life threatening diseases. The number of premature deaths caused by harm to health at work is many times more than those killed each year in workplace accidents.

It is widely known and acknowledged that asbestos is currently the biggest single killer among work related diseases – the tragic deaths we see today (circa 5000 per year) are a result of exposure which occurred 20-30 years ago but we cannot simply see this as a historic problem. There are still plenty of workplaces where asbestos is present – what is key is ensuring that those who could be exposed know what to look for and know how to manage the risk of exposure to this high hazard material. Our latest campaign "Beware asbestos" which has been nominated for several awards – is all about getting those who could be exposed to understand what they need to do and to change their behaviour – and that requires insight as to what will get them to behave differently.

In addition to maintaining a spotlight on the dangers of asbestos it is really encouraging to see BOHS, IOSH and others raising the level of awareness around other serious health hazards with those who are most likely to be exposed. These include crystalline silica dust in the construction sector and diesel exhaust fumes among those who work in mechanical workshops.

It is clear to anyone that all of the hazards I’ve mentioned so far cannot be confined to any one group or just to the workplace. This has and always will be one of the challenges associated with addressing the health agenda – we’re all exposed to exhaust fumes as we walk around , we can all as members of the public be exposed to asbestos and/or silica dust if work environments are not being managed properly.

The latest focus of IOSH’s “No Time to Lose”  campaign takes that argument even further as it attempts to tackle the subject of skin cancer caused by exposure to solar radiation. Clearly those who work outdoors in sectors like construction and agriculture are more exposed than those of us who work in offices or indoors. But addressing an issue like this with any workforce or group raises some challenges: – will it be seen as a real priority by the workforce versus other risks in that sector? Is behaviour change about doing the right thing in the workplace or getting employees to change behaviour more broadly in their leisure time as well? Will well intentioned interventions be perceived as “nannying” by the workforce or other observers?

This isn’t an argument to stop any of the many good things which are taking place to address real workplace health issues – but what’s very clear to me is that we need to ensure that we tackle the right issues and in the right way – and that requires a good deal of insight into how we achieve real behaviour change.

2016-04-13