Matt Powell-Howard, Head of Strategy of leading health and safety awarding body, NEBOSH, talks to Marginalia about how health and safety is conducive to business sustainability…

Hear the word “sustainability” and the sort of ideas that come to mind might be reducing energy consumption, switching to eco-friendly packaging, or tackling excessive and polluting business travel. But in a time of rapid change in the way our working lives are organised, businesses are increasingly recognising the need to apply the sustainability mindset to health and safety in order to preserve and promote the wellbeing and longevity of their most valuable – and vulnerable – asset: their people. 

Every generation stakes a claim to unprecedented rates of change in the workplace. But two decades into the new millennium, a combination of factors – from technology to demographics – are having a significant impact on many sectors and bringing new challenges to the safety and wellbeing of workers.

“The workplace” has itself become an elastic concept: for some it might still be the same desk every day, but for many others it changes day by day or even hour by hour. It might be an office, a train, the kitchen table or a client’s premises; technology means that in many jobs, we can be at work anywhere. It also means we can be at work any time: the ubiquity of mobile technology means switching off from work has become more difficult, and the line between our home and working lives more blurred. The 24/7, always-on culture can cause fatigue and tiredness – and that’s before we think about our ageing population and the prediction that today’s employees will be working into their seventies. Add to this the rise of portfolio careers and zero-hours contracts, and it’s clear that from a health and safety management point of view, the picture is a changing one. 

Most employers understand that the business benefits of investment in health and safety are significant. Leaving to one side the rogue minority that perceive health and safety as cumbersome, costly or contrary to competitiveness, the vast majority of firms are on board with the Health and Safety Executive’s well-evidenced assertions that good health and safety management makes sound business sense. 

Investing in health and safety has a positive effect on the bottom line by lowering absence rates, reducing staff turnover, increasing productivity, quality and reputational standing as well as reducing insurance premiums. Proactive measures such as training and health-promotion initiatives not only help prevent incidents that might lead to ill health and absence – the manual handling training that helps an employee avoid hurting their back while moving boxes, for example – but they also (done well) make employees feel valued, creating a more trusting environment and securing greater loyalty and commitment from the workforce. A positive health and safety culture that promotes wellbeing doesn’t just benefit existing employees, either; it can also help businesses attract and recruit new talent. 

For those employers still need in of persuasion, there’s the legal case for taking health and safety seriously: health and safety aren’t “nice to haves”, but legal necessities. Defending compensation claims or legal action by the enforcing authorities can be costly, in financial and reputational terms. Indeed, some legislation – such as Section 10 of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 – contains sanctions that require firms to publicise their failings in a way prescribed by the judge in the case. One such publicity order was made in the case of Cumbrian building firm Peter Mawson Ltd. The firm was found guilty of corporate manslaughter in February 2015 over the death of worker Jason Pennington, who suffered fatal injuries after falling through a skylight. The company entered a guilty plea and, in addition to a fine of £200,000, was ordered to advertise the details of its conviction in a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper as well as on its website. Companies must be aware that the long-term financial impact of lost earnings from the reputational damage caused by a conviction could dwarf the fine imposed by a court for a serious failing.

So the business and legal arguments for investing in health and safety are clear, as is the moral case for managing health and safety to the best of an organisation’s ability: no one should be harmed while carrying out their work duties. But to meet the demands and expectations placed on today’s employees – to ensure they stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible, and to minimise the risk of individuals being forced to leave work prematurely – employers need to think not only in terms of workers’ day-to-day lives: they need to think about sustainable working lives.

The safety charity RoSPA – a key partner for NEBOSH – promotes a “whole person, whole life” approach, which means “businesses engaging with their employees, recognising that we have one body and one mind that has to sustain us over time”. Exactly what a sustainable approach in a health and safety context means in practice will vary according to industry, organisation and job role, but sustainability relies on early intervention. For example, hearing loss in older age that forces an individual to retire early could be prevented if workplace noise monitoring, carried out in tandem with health monitoring, uncovers a problem in its early stages, allowing employer and individual time to act before there is significant damage. Likewise measures such as controlling airborne contaminants, limiting usage of vibrating machinery or carrying out stress risk assessments can all help prevent many of the debilitating ill-health effects that have in the past forced individuals out of work (not to mention the costly compensation claims that often follow).

Sustainability requires employers to think both long-term and holistically. As the boundaries between work and home lives become less well defined, so employers’ responsibilities to consider the person as a whole increase – not least because the causes of so many health problems, both physical and mental, are multifactorial. With problems such as stress, musculoskeletal disorders and noise-induced hearing loss, it can be difficult to pinpoint a single work or non-work-related cause. And an ageing workforce brings with it new challenges. For example, older workers are more likely to have caring responsibilities: in the UK 1 in 4 women and 1 in 8 men in their 50s and 60s provide unpaid care, according ONS figures. So to achieve sustainability, employers may need to offer greater flexibility in working arrangements. 

Above all, though, sustainability requires teamwork. Both employer and worker need to “sign up” – the former to protecting their employees, the latter to taking responsibility for making the right choices about their own safety and health. After all, maintaining good health into older age benefits employer and individual alike.

For 40 years NEBOSH has offered qualifications that help organisations and individuals to know and do effective health, safety, environmental and wellbeing management. It’s helped them to protect many thousands of workers – as well as the communities they work in – across the world. For more information visit: www.nebosh.org.uk