The changing face of health and safety

When you think of health and safety training, you might well think of outdated VHS tapes and paper print-outs, or perhaps an hour or two spent watching PowerPoint slides flicking past. In terms of content, it might be fire safety that springs to mind, or advice on slips, trips and falls.

Our understanding of what health and safety really means has changed a great deal in recent years. The information taught and the ways in which we absorb that information have been overhauled, as the way we live and work evolves and adapts.

Health and safety training has never been glamorous, and one of the key barriers to its full success over time has been a lack of real interest. In many industries, there’s an assumption that much of it is just common sense, or that serious incidents just won’t happen. Coupled with learning formats which can lack stimulation and fail to catch our attention, this kind of attitude continues to lead to all manner of workplace accidents and injuries.

As technology’s impact on everyday life continues to grow, the health and safety industry is taking strides to keep up and try to get ahead of the curve. From Mental Health First Aid to augmented reality training exercises, here are a few key ways in which our understanding of health and safety is getting an update.

Wellbeing as a safety concern

In the UK alone, more than 12 million working days were lost in 2017 because of work-related mental health issues. CIPD’s recent Wellbeing at Work survey found that UK employers stated poor mental health as the number one cause of long-term employee absence, and though physical accidents and injuries have been on the decline since the Health and Safety Executive was formed many decades ago, stress-related absence and reported mental health problems are on the rise.

Employers who are keen to look after their staff are waking up to the concept of wellbeing, be it for moral reasons or purely because of the financial effects of a decreased workforce. Health and safety at work is no longer solely about physical harm and hazards, but acknowledges that businesses have a responsibility to the overall wellbeing of their employees too.

Stress as a result of being overworked or lacking job stability is a key issue, but considerations include everything from exhaustion in shift workers to managing the range of mental health conditions not dictated purely by working conditions.

Not so long ago, mental health was something of a taboo topic – with the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and desire to ‘keep calm and carry on’ getting in the way of tackling a serious and deadly issue. Now, with initiatives like the construction industry’s Mates in Mind and the introduction of mental health training courses for all workplaces, it’s clear that times are changing.

Interactive training experiences

The days of staring blankly at a screen and skim-reading pamphlets are just about over. Once the domain of gamers and leisure complexes, developments in virtual reality and augmented reality are breathing a new lease of life into the health and safety industry.

Recently, the British Safety Council announced that they would be adding a VR element to almost all of their health and safety training courses, to enable students to make risk assessments based on virtual “in-situ” observations.

British Safety Council’s head of digital learning, James Mansbridge says that, “VR provides a safe environment in which to learn, where making mistakes is not only okay, but enhances the overall learning experience.”

The organisation will also be introducing augmented reality, allowing users to practice the safe set up and use of items like pedestal drills, using virtual tools overlaid onto a real-world setting. Particularly with situations and risks that are impossible to safely recreate, VR and AR enable learners to take onboard new information effectively and without ever being in danger.

VR is also being used in other settings, from training the Royal Mail’s postal workers in how to avoid dog attacks to simulating the consequences of driving tired, in the hope of reducing accidents caused by driver fatigue in the infrastructure industries.

Research has shown that people who have experienced an accident, injury or ‘near miss’ display much better safety behaviours than people who have never been hurt while doing something in an unsafe way. As such, the health and safety industry is embracing new VR and AR technology as a way of stimulating safer behaviours – allowing students to experience an immersive training format more akin to experiencing safety hazards than simply being told about them.

The pros and cons of technology

While it is new technology that is helping the safety industry to quickly adapt and change, new technology is also thought to be the cause of a range of issues in employee wellbeing. Automation, artificial intelligence and a working style that can be more impactful on our mental than our physical health have all combined to create major changes in the everyday life of the working person.

The psychological impact of job insecurity, caused by the automation of industries like electronics and automotive production, is likely already affecting around 11 million people in the UK. This is the number the HSE have indicated could lose their jobs to robotics and automated processes in the next 20 years. On top of that, zero-hours contracts and the gig economy are taking their toll.

Portable technologies and high-speed browsing also mean that many of us never truly ‘switch off’ from our working lives. The work-life balance is becoming poorly weighted, and coupled with job insecurity, can drive employees to overworking and failing to raise health concerns with their employers.

In terms of physical health, the automation of dangerous processes can only be a good thing. But more than half of UK employers still have no wellbeing strategy in place to support their teams with stress, anxieties and other mental health issues that can occur as a result of workplace pressures.

With some suggesting that a Mental Health First Aider should be just as obligatory in the workplace as a fire warden or physical First Aider, it’s time for all industries to keep up with changes to the meaning of “health and safety”. Instigating more interactive training methods and paying attention to team wellbeing are just the beginning, with a full cultural shift now needed in the way we all view workplace health.

Tabby Farrar is a researcher and copywriter, working alongside the British Safety Council and specialising in topics around workplace health and wellbeing.



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