Why health management helps to improve safety

Andy Murdy

The importance of managing Health if you want to improve Safety

One of the interesting tensions I've seen during my life in health and safety is the one between managing 'Health' and managing 'Safety'.  For a long time 'Safety' was the glamerous stuff - people getting injured, disaster happening.  It always felt like an action movie and, while not quite James Bond, certainly something tough and rugged.  Whereas 'Health' always seemed a bit more gentle and kind, a romantic comedy or period drama.  Interesting, worthy but not what you want to see all the time.

Or maybe that's just me an the films I like...

Anyway, one thing I have learnt over the years is that Safety without Health is missing the value of human beings and health without safety is pointless.  You need good, sound health mangement to prevent the long term damage to people and sensible and effective safety management to get people to old age.  The two things aren't interchangeable and they aren't exclusive.  They are, however, important in equal measure, they just happen over different timescales.

Today I saw this on the HSE automatic email.


This is a serious issue.  Here's a snippet from the press release:

'The workers, who have asked not to be named, developed advanced symptoms of the well-known condition after prolonged use of vibrating hand tools, used as part of their work building engine casings at the GKN plant in East Cowes.

Their circulation problems mean their hands become white and dead in the cold, with extreme pain on warming. The nerve damage affects their ability to carry out finer tasks needing dexterity, meaning they lack grip and can often drop objects.'

Five workers who have had theor health damaged by work.  Their lives affected just as badly as if they had been severely injured by some immediate incident.

That's bad news.  But it gets worse.  According to the press release (which is from the Court Proceedings) it seems that the company identified the problem and carried on.  Let me repeat the company identified the problem and carried on...

They failed to comply with the legislation when it became law in 2006.  They identified the health issue in 2009 but carried on working in the same way.  The trouble with health issues is that, sometimes, you need to report them to the HSE.  And when you do, they investigate and may take action.

The action in this case was an improvement notice followed by a prosecution.  A large fine follows...

Of course, the real cost is to the workers with damaged health.  Again, from the press release: 'The nerve damage affects their ability to carry out finer tasks needing dexterity, meaning they lack grip and can often drop objects.'

Changing working methods takes time.  Buying less hazardous tools takes time.  Managing the issue when it is a long term effect takes effort and commitment.  If this was a safety issue work would probably have been stopped there and then and a fix developed.  In the case of noise, vibration, respiratory sensitisers, skin irritants, etc. it can be a case of 'it's another day of trying to fix a difficult issue problem and we can't do it today so tomorrow will do'.  That's a tough stance to take in defence of serious ill health when you have identified the problem.

At the end of the day, health and safety need to be managed.  The timescales may be different but the effects are just as serious.

“ 'The nerve damage affects their ability to carry out finer tasks needing dexterity, meaning they lack grip and can often drop objects.'”

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