Health & Safety

New Year’s Resolution; Less Harry Potter, More Gordon Gekko

It has become something of a tradition in our household to do a Harry Potter marathon (of sorts) over Christmas. i.e watch all eight films over eight consecutive evenings over the festive period. My daughters grew up with Harry. My youngest’s impression of Moaning Myrtle is exceptional (apparently my own “Expecto Patronum!” is quite good too).

Spoiler alert

Harry kills Voldemort at the end.

Good conquers evil.

Morality wins the day.

The books and the films are so satisfying because the right and proper outcome is achieved.

If only it was as simple in the world of occupational health and safety.

Most of you will be familiar with the moral argument for creating and maintain good standards of health and safety in workplaces. You will have seen the recent statistics package release by the HSE that quantifies the extent of death, injury and ill-health realised as a consequence of trying to earn a living (see here). You might also be aware that the HSE statistics do not take account of the most significant cause of work-related fatal accidents, road traffic collisions, because those statistics are collected by the police and are accounted for in other stats releases (see here).

And many of you will be aware that the numbers in no way reflect the true hurt caused by death, injury and ill-health. That felt not just by the injured person themselves, but by their families, friends and colleagues. Some of you will have experienced this first hand. It’s not pretty. If you’ve been there before you don’t ever want to go back.

Unfortunately the moral argument does not cut a lot of mustard with many people. The fact is they haven’t been there. They haven’t had the experience (and experience is a harsh but effective teacher). Many people leave emotion at the door when they go to work and turn to cold, hard logic to guide them in their decision making. Which is not to say they don’t care. They do care, but they have other priorities that win the argument.

Or they don’t care (see here).

So how do you win the argument if you can’t rely on empathy, emotion or morality as your weapon?

Turn to the law?

Let’s be honest; the law is a pretty poor shepherd of behaviour. I speed every time I drive on the motorway. Just like most of you. How come I’m being overtaken routinely?

The legal argument only works if decision makers understand the legal consequences of non-compliance, fear those consequences and think there is a good chance of getting caught. If the costs of compliance are significant, the penalties are minor and/ or the chances are that the enforcer won’t notice anyway, then why bother to spend the money on compliance? That’s money saved.

Simplistically accidents are examples of pure risk. There is no gain; there is only loss.

But making decisions about funding health and safety are about speculative risk. There are possibilities for gain and loss. If money is spent and a costly accident is prevented then there is a gain. If money is spent and contracts are won (on the basis of improved health and safety performance), that would otherwise not have been won, then there is a gain. If money is spent on ineffective control measures and a costly accident occurs then there is a double loss.

Welcome to the business case.

Economic uncertainty looms large this year and many businesses and organisations face increasing financial uncertainty as trade wars and Brexit (sorry) unfold. As we drift along on the turbulent currents, blindfolded and fearful, (sorry) it is essential to keep health and safety on the agenda and keep the budget healthy. That’s only going to happen if the financial argument is made and won.

So my challenge to you is to make the business case for health and safety in your organisations.

Because not everyone’s moral compass points north.

And some people have dropped theirs.

I’ll leave the last word to Marx; “Those are my principles and if you don’t like them…well I have others.

(Groucho, not Karl)

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor