As campaigning for the snap general election on 8 June gets underway, Karen Bufton, President of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), has called on all political parties to ensure their policies address UK worker health protection. Action is needed to reverse the terrible trend of occupational illness and deaths that occur every year – a trend which is totally preventable, unnecessary and unacceptable.
With just weeks to go before the general election, the main parties will shortly be publishing their manifestos, setting out their policies on key issues from the NHS, housing and taxation – to the economy, education and defence.
As strategies are planned, policy makers should be aware that protecting worker health is imperative. Whilst the social benefits of healthy workers are self-evident, research has shown that businesses save huge amounts of money by implementing good occupational hygiene practice. The UK’s Olympic Park was a prime example, where analysis indicated that implementing worker health protection measures far outweighed the costs involved. Net benefits were great, with a £7 saving for every £1 invested.
We need a more positive message on the campaign trail about the benefits of protecting worker health. Keeping workers healthy should always be seen as an investment – not a cost – for UK organisations.
In recent years there have been suspicions in government circles that the UK has been “gold-plating” health and safety legislation, placing a burden on UK industry, with accompanying claims about red-tape encumbering British businesses.
The truth is that a series of separate independent reviews, firstly by Lord Davidson; then Lord Young; Professor Löfstedt; and most recently Martin Temple, have repeatedly concluded this is not the case and there is little or no evidence of such gold-plating.
The UK’s health and safety system is not only fit for purpose, but in fact serves as a model of control – and efficient flexibility – emulated by other countries around the world. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is the prime legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK, and continues to be the most frequently cited piece of legislation in related cases.
The real burden on British businesses are the tragic deaths of 13,000 people from occupational ill health every year, as a result of exposure to workplace health hazards, as well as the 1.5 million people suffering from occupational ill health in any year. Additionally, the 0.5 million new cases of occupational ill health added to the toll annually – all of which are preventable by the application of sound occupational hygiene principles.
As the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, we at BOHS would like to see a real commitment in party manifestos to tackle worker health protection, and reduce the shocking burden of occupational ill health and death.
In recent years, we have seen significant traction in raising awareness about worker health protection, through initiatives such as our Breathe Freely campaign, to prevent occupational lung disease: in addition to other campaigns run by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), trade unions and various bodies.
If we are to take advantage of this momentum, it will be critical in future for our health and safety system to retain a properly-funded and well run Health and Safety Executive, that can provide and facilitate guidance on good practice, as well as enforcement activities. The HSE must be supported in its steadying function of upholding standards and preventing a decline, in order to facilitate new trade deals or reduce the cost burden on industry.
Snap election campaigns tend, by nature, to be more tightly focused on the most pressing issues of the day. As the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, we believe worker health protection is absolutely integral to the health and vitality of the UK’s economy. We therefore urge all the political parties to seize the opportunities for change offered by this general election, and to absolutely prioritise the health of British workers in their forthcoming manifestos.