World Day for Safety and Health at Work falls on 28 April 2019. This year, the Day sought to celebrate 100 years of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Often, “health and safety” can be colloquially used as shorthand for “red tape”, “extra paper work”, or “spoiling the fun”. Yet the Day serves as a reminder that health and safety regulations are important to everyone – and that failure to comply with them can have catastrophic consequences.
The history of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work has its origins as far back as the end of the First World War. Now an agency of the United Nations, the ILO was established in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles, as part of the League of Nations’ overall objective of lasting peace. In recognising the importance of “social justice” in establishing and maintaining peace, the League of Nations noted:
“Whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled,” and
“Whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries”,
it concluded that an organisation was needed to improve workers’ conditions.
Uniquely within the UN, the ILO includes three key stakeholders in developing policies and standards: namely governments, employers and workers. The founding objectives included goals such as regulating working hours, securing appropriate wages, and particularly, “the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of his employment.”
This year, the theme of the Day is reflection on the work that has been done over the past century to improve safety at work, and looking forward to what may happen in future – taking into account changes to our world such as climate change and developments in technology.
Health and Safety Today
Today, what has come to be recognised as health and safety in the workplace has come a long way. The clearest illustration of this is that the number of injuries and deaths occurring in the workplace is significantly less than it was 40 years ago.
Although the reporting requirements for fatal and serious injuries have changed over time, even based on the headline figures, there are signs of progress in improving health and safety in the workplace. According to HSE statistics, the first year recording fatalities to employees (1974) recorded 651 workplace accident deaths in the UK. In 1981 (the first year that both employee and self-employed workers were included in the figures), 495 people sustained fatal injuries at work – 2.1 per 100,000 workers. The most recent figure, for the year 2017/2018, is 144, or 0.45 per 100,000 workers.
While the trend is positive in that it shows a steady decline in the number of fatalities, the fact remains fatal work-related incidents still occur. Separate statistics are kept for injuries to workers and include, on a national level, the lost income to individuals, employers and the UK government and its taxpayers caused by workplace injury. In the most recent figures (2016), the overall loss resulting from workplace injuries and ill health was estimated by HSE at £15 billion.
Responsibility for health and safety
Health and safety is a collective and individual responsibility. All team members from directors, to managers, to workers must look out for their own safety and those around them. A health and safety incident can impact on the organisation and individuals in a wide range of ways: from the financial costs to the risk to the liberty of individuals, if a prosecution results in a custodial sentence.
And of course, at the centre of all this, is the death or injury of an individual, and the pain they and their family will experience.
So, this World Day for Safety and Health at Work, perhaps take a moment to think about how your business performs on health and safety, and how you can take positive steps to improve it.