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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Enlarging our scope

The avoidance of harm is a noble objective but in a rapidly changing world of work it is no longer sufficient to keep health and safety relevant, argues PAUL LITCHFIELD.

The world of work is changing – and it’s changing fast! Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes what we are experiencing as the fourth industrial revolution. He argues that new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds and disrupting established ideas about work, the economy and even the nature of humanity.

As we look around in our daily lives, there is ample evidence to suggest that he is right. What we do, how we do it and where we do it are all changing with remarkable speed. Developed economies are now dominated by service industries as first agriculture and then manufacturing have declined.

Automation, fuelled by artificial intelligence, is replacing jobs which have formed the backbone of employment for a generation or more. Shop assistants, real estate agents and taxi drivers look set to become as rare in the future as typists, insurance brokers and petrol pump attendants are today. For many people, “work” is no longer a location but an activity and “normal working hours” is losing its relevance as a meaningful phrase.

Revolutions always produce winners and losers. These changes pose a threat to a raft of employment support services – not least health and safety – but they also present an opportunity. If we are to survive as a discipline, we will have to adapt to what is coming down the track and ensure that we are alive to emerging hazards as well as structured to deliver services in a digital age. However, if we are to really prosper we need to do much more than that – we need to embrace the new paradigm and reframe what we mean by “occupational health and safety”.


There have been enormous advances in health and safety over the past 40 years. We have eliminated numerous hazards from the workplace and we have instituted effective mechanisms to control most of those that remain. We have championed a behavioural approach that has allowed us to drive incident rates down to levels that would have been thought unachievable previously. Major construction projects are judged now not just on whether they are delivered to time and budget but also by how many of those working on them have been killed or injured (with “zero” as the expectation).

Health has finally been given parity of esteem with safety and, increasingly, we have focused on the psychological as well as the physical aspects. However, those achievements are now taken for granted and it can feel like being in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – “What has health and safety ever done for us?”

Our hierarchy of control approach to risk management has served us well but it is no longer enough. Increasingly, it is not exposure to particular hazards or work activities that are causing harm but the way that work is organised. Managing those aspects that cause psychological distress – excess demands, lack of control, poor relationships, perceived injustice, etc – take us into areas which have not been our traditional focus.


More fundamentally, seeing the avoidance of harm as our sole objective limits our relevance in a modern economy and fails to meet the rising expectations of our stakeholders on whom we rely for sponsorship and, ultimately, employment. Society now expects more of businesses than just to “do no harm”. Companies are expected to be a force for good and that starts with their own workforce. Millennials are voting with their feet and the brightest and best look beyond the reward package on offer to join those organisations that prioritise their people’s personal development and happiness.

We need to reposition ourselves as the experts who not only minimise the negatives of working but who can also advise on maximising the positives. That means having an outcome measure that spans the entire spectrum of the human condition and which is broader than the narrow interpretation which is generally applied to “health”. It is 70 years since the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, and yet any discussion of the subject rapidly descends into talk of illness.

“Wellbeing” is increasingly seen as a useful term to describe the flourishing communities, in the workplace and elsewhere, to which we all aspire. Economists, social scientists and psychologists (organisational, behavioural, clinical, etc) have joined with those in healthcare and others to start creating an evidence base for the science of wellbeing. That provides us with a platform to guide our organisations on how to drive improved employee wellbeing and how to measure progress in a validated way.


Most of the advances in health and safety have been underpinned by a moral imperative to “do the right thing”. No business leader would want to inflict injury or illness on their people and the vast majority would do all that is reasonably practicable to avoid that. The same is true for wellbeing – senior executives will want to create a working environment that promotes health and happiness. The challenge often comes in justifying the resources required to make progress. Fortunately, the evidence is growing that an investment in wellbeing can deliver substantial business benefits. Those benefits accrue not only in the area of cost control, which has been the basis for most health and safety business cases, but extend to improved business performance. Greater employee wellbeing drives higher productivity, more innovation and better customer experience. Those are the engines for growth in any company and will be critical differentiators in a knowledge-based, service industry-dominated economy.

The technological asteroid is about to impact on the world of work. It will cause a fundamental change in the employment climate. Businesses that adapt to focus on the wellbeing of their people will be well placed to enjoy sustained commercial success. Those that do not will face the destiny of all dinosaurs.

We, in health and safety, have a duty to evolve and show leadership in the science of workplace wellbeing. By doing so we will help to safeguard our own futures but, more importantly, we will be providing a valuable service to our fellow human beings.

UK-based Dr Paul Litchfield, OBE, is chair of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. He was formerly chief medical officer and director of health, safety & wellbeing with British Telecom. He is speaking at the HealthyWork conference in Auckland in November.

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