The future of health and safety

Workplaces, processes, people and their expectations have evolved over the years and the speed of that change is soaring to the future. Can the health and safety of the organization and its people be structured as independent structures often reporting to HR departments? A look at history tells us, health and safety followed the trends in manufacturing processes and rightly focused on the rampant injuries and death occurring in manufacturing and mining and the new electricity as priorities. The early focus was on the behaviour of the workers as the way to reduce the incredible level of deaths and catastrophic injuries in manufacturing, mining and railroading.

The early health and safety practitioners came out of mining (United Kingdom) and the military. It was quite common to hear a U.K. accent in the early 80’s. The focus of competencies of those doing safety work was on basic safety practices, and some training of workers, this trend has created the foundation of workplace health and safety as we know it today. I can remember when we didn’t have any idea what the word ergonomic meant.

But, the world changed, it sometimes seems, almost overnight. New regulations and standards are reflecting the change in society’s values. Now organizations are concerned about corporate social responsibility, the wellness of their employees, psychological health and safety, ant-bullying, new processes, new chemicals and new organizational designs. In business the talk is about flattening, horizontal structures, off-shore processing, supply-chain management and telecommuting. And we are faced with skill shortages, migrant and immigrant workers need to improve productivity, technology; the list goes on and on.

The environment is evolving; shifting values, shifting expectations of community, consumers and workers are one aspect of our need to continue to review where we are and where we need to be. And still every day in Canada, four people die and in 2012, 685 workers were injured every day — nearly a million people a year.

Organizations are only going to be safe and healthy places if we consider the whole organization and the whole person. Organizations are living breathing beings they are systems. So too are we has humans. In this age of specialization we have compartmentalized and departmentalized our places of work, our communities and our people. We must move toward a systems thinking approach to health and safety and ensure our health and safety professionals are educated and developed to go beyond the solely mechanized thinking that must be the past.

The health and safety professional of the future, will not only ensure the basic foundation of safety is solidly in place, and talk the language of business. But, importantly will have to provide advice and support for the key cultural aspects of the workplace and the physical, social, mental and psychological health of the workers and the workplace. This is not the soft stuff of business, it is the hard stuff. The social, moral and economic costs to our people, our communities and, yes, our business is known.

It is time to have the conversation about this desired future state and you the health and safety leaders of Canada are the ones to lead.