Shifting Sands of Health & Safety
Early Days of Health and Safety
Health and safety as a profession can trace its roots back to the early 19th century and the industrial revolution. As societies worldwide began to transform from their traditional production and manufacturing methods to factory-based manufacturing, the rapid development brought with it the need for huge numbers of largely low-skilled workers from the various parts of the world into factories, mining, railways and other similar jobs. The speed of this change was fast and furious, and the workplaces weren't exactly renowned for being employee friendly nor healthy, safe environments. By perceived necessity, children were a key component of the labour force moving into these workplaces.
The impacts of this paradigm shift in the workplace didn't go unnoticed though by the general public or governments of the time. The negative impacts began to emerge quickly and workers were falling ill, being killed and permanently disable, education for the children working in the factories was put on the back-burner and, in general, the burden on the social fabric was immense. Governments and social reformers began to understand this and social mechanisms began to emerge aimed at ensuring at least a minimum standard of welfare for workers and their families was established, and that the longer-term impacts on society could be managed. The formation, and evolution of socialist reform and quasi-union movements during this period did a pretty good job of portraying employers as the 'elite' class of industrial masters, who were preying on the hardworking yet powerless working class for profits and needless to say, change began to happen.
The UK Government is generally considered the first country to use regulatory reform to try and change this perception (or reality!) of a ruthless ruling class with the introduction of the Factory Act in 1933. The Factory Act was pretty light in content, and it focused predominantly on preventing child labour and setting minimum welfare standards. Despite its brevity, something it did do was that it set a precedent that many other countries throughout Europe and the US later got onboard with (circa early 1900's). The premise of the regulatory intervention was simple - regulators wanted to send a clear message to businesses that they no longer had all the power, and that if they chose to pursue profits, they must do so whilst considering the health and welfare of their workforce whom were entitled to certain rights and freedoms.
Health and safety in the UK during this period was characterised by employers reducing their use of child labour (though not eliminating) and introducing basic standards of employment aimed at demonstrating they weren't taking advantage of their immigrant and low-social class workers in the pursuit of profit. However, with the exception of a few government inspectors (4 actually), and a handful of factory-employed inspectors (that rarely bothered to enforce the rules), some 'specialists' around occupational health (doctors) because of the spike in occupational illnesses (cholera, typhoid, lung disease, phossy jaw, soot wart), there wasn't any meaningful health and safety profession, but we did exist.
Early Stages of the Health and Safety Profession
As mentioned, throughout Europe and the US, slowly but surely, similar laws and regulations were introduced and eventually all trading markets were expected to follow the fundamental principles of worker protection as what had been introduced in the UK. It wasn't perfect, but it was a start. Implementation of basic regulatory expectations is really the predominant health and safety measure of this time, and this continued into the early 20th century.
Then, in the early 1930's, a US scientist called Herbert Heinrich attempted to put some science behind workplace health and safety, in what later become known as "Heinrich's Law". Whilst he wasn't the only researcher in his field, Heinrich's research gained traction because of the simplicity of what he was asserting. Heinrich suggested that for every accident resulting in a major injury, there were 29 accidents that caused minor injuries and 300 accidents that caused no injured. This concept put figures, and a body of evidence, behind incidents in the workplace and drew corollary relationships that were easy to understand - if employers could reduce simple incidents, then they could reduce large incidents. A further conclusion, based on concept he asserted, the need for hazard control and for educating the workforce to reduce accidents. Something unfortunate that Heinrich's also asserted (and for which he is considered the grandfather of 'behavioural based safety') was that his research demonstrated 95% of workplace accidents were caused by "unsafe acts". This unfortunate, and often misunderstood statement set up a mindset that workers were the cause of workplace health and safety problems - an attitude that prevails to this day. Blaming workers began to be the norm during this period.
Interestingly though, over in the UK, a 1937 legal case known as 'Wilson's and Clyde Coal Ltd v English" cemented the concept of 'duty of care' into the legal system case reinforced the employers non-delegate duty to create a safe system of work. Employers couldn't always blame the worker, they had to focus on systems and processes as well. The precedent set out that despite any delegation of work, workplace safety remained the absolute responsibility of the employer. This precedent, and being faced with the risk of financial losses from workplace incidents, employers started to pay real attention to trying to mitigate the chance of loss before it happened. Heinrich's research was effectively being reinforced by the law-makers.
Employers were being forced to focus on hazard controls such as the implementation of guards and barriers, safer equipment and training of their workforce. During this period, risk processionals started to emerge and their focus was on helping organisations to understand their practical worksite risks and what could be done to mitigate the legal responsibilities. I guess an appropriate term for these professions would be 'risk custodian' who was part educator, part problem solver but that primarily focused on implementing controls based on the top levels of the modern-day hierarchy of controls (Elimination, Substitution and Engineering) and then educating the workforce on these controls.
Back over in the US, now moving into the 1950's and 60's, a gentleman by the name Frank E. Bird was doing his own work and research to corroborate the research of Heinrich. The unique aspect of Bird's research however was that he was looking at industrial safety in terms of loss control and in 1969 published a book on 'Total Loss Control'. This book, arguably, fundamentally changed the attitude to health and safety among employers and had the effect of bringing health and safety to the forefront of the minds of business leaders.
Bird, professionally, came from an insurance background and he spoke in terms that business leaders understood - he knew what mattered to them and what their motivators were. Bird express health and safety events and accidents in terms of business losses (fiscal) and it worked. Whilst terms such as safety were traditionally seen in terms of a costly business expense, Bird's explanations of health and safety expenditure related the minimisation of losses, reduced expenditures (on insurances), provision of legal protections against negligence and improved performance. This cost-benefit type analysis was far easier to understood by business leaders, and they took their first steps to implementation of health and safety measures a business imperative.
The fundamentals of Bird's loss control suggestions, such as loss control policies, duties and responsibilities, accident reporting & investigations, audits and inspections, competency development, emergency plans, business contingency planning and communication are still a part of nearly every HSE Management System across all industries to this day. It was during this era that the health and safety professionals really began, and there was a movement from being inspectors and risk / hazard professionals to being health and safety professional and business advisors.
What Drove the Modern H&S Change
The next major step forward for health and safety professionals came with the enactment of legislation in the UK (again) in 1974, known as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, this legislation set the frame for the 'modern' HSE professionals.
A key difference in this legislation to it's predecessors was that not only did employers have obligations in the workplace, so did employees. Employees were now expected to be a key player in implementing and complying with health and safety rules and regulations. The legislation took a more holistic view of the workplace, and different parties were being held responsible and accountable for the various aspects of the legislation.
During this time though, the new laws and regulations were not well understood, companies recognised that they had to do something, and begrudgingly accepted their new obligations - but they simply didn't know how. Actually, it wasn't just businesses, in many cases the regulators issuing the mandates (laws and regulations) didn't truly understand how the new requirements were to be implemented either - essentially it was just compounded confusion. But, the late 1970's and 1980's, in the aftermath of signifiant industrial disasters around the globe such as Lake Peigneur (1980), Ocean Ranger (1982), Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), Challenger Space Shuttle (1986), Piper Alpha (1988) and the Exxon Valdez (1989) there was a public outcry for more to be done - this was heard by governments worldwide and a raft of rules, regulations and guidance was rolled out to organisations who were forced to start looking and health and safety in a new light. A real paradigm shift for many organisations took place during this period, and health and safety started considering the human element in their organisation, and how this element impacted their business performance, not just the health and welfare of their employees.
During this period, the 'generalist H&S professional' emerged. Generally, these were the workers that had an interest in safety and were men and women from predominantly blue collar backgrounds that felt strongly that felt company profits shouldn't be to the detriment of the worker. With the support of union pressure, health and safety became a fast developing profession, and the generalist H&S professionals were being called upon more and more by their employers to 'interpret' the rules and implement was was needed so that the business was compliant. By necessity, the focus during this period was on 'doing H&S'. Organisations began to take detailed inventory of their risks, and began implementing the necessary 'controls'. When it came to implementation of controls though, for the most part, it was being done by site safety teams not by the line function and also without any real top-down leadership. Whilst it was being done, it was done without any sustainable strategy. During this period, health and safety professionals were characterised by action and their can-do attitudes.
The Modern Day H&S Professionals
Recent incidents, particularly in the energy sector, such as the Montarra and Macondo spills garnered global media attention, have once again highlighted the intrinsic link between health and safety performance and business performance. There are a number of aspects that the modern day H&S professional needs to consider to continue to add value to their organization.
External Parties: This time though, the media attention and impacts this had on share prices and bottom-lines, forced companies to not only to consider their legal obligations, now by necessity the must also consider their moral obligations, and the interests of a variety of non-traditional stakeholders (communities, public interest groups, partners). This has in turn meant also meant that the health and safety professionals has become somewhat of a business advisor, who needs to more cognisant of who the risks within the workplace may impacts external parties.
Competence: It's not easy to categorically state that all parts of the world are equal in the skills, expertise and professionalism for health and safety professional. I've worked all over the world and have seen good and bad professionals everywhere, from all countries and backgrounds. But what I can say, is that collectively and as a profession, we've gone from being inspectors and child protection workers to risk advisors, from hand-holders to more recently, strategy and business consultants who play a vital role for contributing to business strategy and influencing CEO's on the value of protecting their assets and brand.
Technology: Businesses are turning to technologies to help them manage their obligations, and with the improvements to the professional status of health and safety professionals, workers are also being listened to more actively. For mature organisations, there is now management and ownership of health and safety in the line function, managed similar to finance or procurement. These organisations utilise health and safety professionals as internal consultants, supporting the line in delivering the businesses' objectives.
Networking: For less mature organisations, by necessity there's still a degree of 'hand-holding' to be done but at least the health and safety professional has the information at their fingertips and the ability to leverage professional bodies such as IOSH, IIRSM, ASSE in understanding best practices to implement health and safety.
Education: Traditionally, there is a tendency for health and safety personnel to drawn from field experienced employees who were 'educated' in the workplace and who brought with them an understanding, pragmatism and insight into the real challenges of the workplace and were knowledgeable on the specific risks and countermeasures necessary in that workplace. In recent times, there is a tendency to hire H&S professionals with university educations, and be this by necessity or design it adds a degree of confidence that we're moving forward in the concept that formal education, not necessarily to a university level, is still key to ensure the ongoing value-add function that is needed by companies.
The Future of the H&S Profession
In my humble opinion, as our professions move forwards, in a world that is going to be more interconnected than ever with technological developments, and both hardware and software solutions that are outstripping companies capacity to keep up, the H&S professional will become ever more valuable for businesses is we continue to learn and educate ourselves.
With such technologies as wearables, artificial intelligence, drone technology, Safety 2.0, Internet of Things (IoT), and seriously improved communications technology (such as 5G) that will allow remote and real time support from experts 3000 miles away - the health and safety professional will need to become more connected to their peers globally.
There is a need for research and professional associations to focus on understanding the current trends, developments and technologies in health and safety, and an overarching need for the health and safety professional to be able to refine this massive data and technological stream into something that the workers need. We health and safety professionals will need to have a greater understanding of the needs of our organizations, and the willingness to research the best practices and technologies that will fit our organizations and the ability to sell these to our leadership teams as a legitimate value add.
For me, the future role of the H&S professional might be paved with uncertainty, but this fast pace change permeates every part of our modern day lives and it isn't something we need worry ourselves with - for me what we need to do is simply to be cognisant of trends and technologies and make efforts to continually educate ourselves on industry trends and attitudes both from within our profession and to listen to the needs of our customers - the workers and the employers. We must be willing to adapt to the change, admit what we don't know and continue to work diligently to fill those gaps with continuing professional development.
Most importantly, I'll reiterate that we must remain passionate and focused on ensuring positive outcomes for our health and safety 'customers' and being recognised as trusted advisors to our organizational leadership.
From the Archives
An early industrial induction
Early Health and Safety in the US (From the film 'Can't Take No More' - OSHA)
From the 1930's to WWII (From the film 'Can't Take No More' - OSHA)
OSHA in the 1970's