Looking for a wider scope

Louise Ward
British Safety Council
05 Apr 2017

This month I would like to share with you an extract from the British safety Council’s response to the government’s Green paper Work, health and disability: improving lives.

The British Safety Council supports the principle of a country that works for everyone. We agree that disabilities and health conditions should not be a barrier to work, and are committed to supporting people to achieve their full potential and aspirations.

We wholeheartedly support the view that the right work delivers positive benefits, both physically and psychologically for the individual, but also for the employer and for society in general. However, we acknowledge that a lot of work will be required to establish this as the common view, and to implement a system which will support this effectively.

Traditionally focus has fallen on safety rather than health issues in the workplace. Huge progress has been made over the last 40 years and the number of fatalities and serious injuries has reduced significantly. The economy has changed too, placing different demands on workers and, as the number of accidents has decreased, there has been a greater awareness of longer latency health issues.

Today, skilled and knowledgeable people are at the heart of the modern British economy. Employers recognise that their workers are a key asset and are keen to support and retain them. Brexit has sharpened this focus too, particularly in sectors such as healthcare, hospitality and construction where there is currently a dependence on skilled labour from other EU countries.

There is a blurring of the boundaries between life and work as technological advances, and the changing nature of work, mean that many people can now operate effectively from any location with an internet connection. This can result in excessive working hours, but also allows people to work much more flexibly to accommodate personal and family requirements. The gig economy is changing employment relationships too, and an increasing number of people work remotely, outside of a traditional workplace, which can impact negatively on mental wellbeing. 

The time is right to focus on health as an enabler to work. However, it’s not just about employing and retaining people with disabilities or long term health conditions. There is also a need to focus on health and wellbeing for the existing working population.  People are living longer and pensions are frequently no longer sufficient to support early retirement. As a result, the workforce is ageing, and many more people are having to manage the health effects of getting older while still at work.

People need information and support to help them make healthy decisions, and timely access to medical services is a key requirement. Short- term illness and minor injury can easily result in long term sickness absence if the issues are not addressed promptly. This has negative effects on the physical and mental health of the individual, results in costs for the employer, and demands for places on the medical and social care systems. 

Primary care services across the UK are currently extremely stretched.  Many people report that they are struggling to obtain the treatment they require in a timely fashion, and this is having a significant impact on the health of the working population.

We are disappointed that the Green paper Work, health and disability: improving lives has not addressed this important issue. We call on the government to widen the scope of the programme to consider initiatives, which will support timely access to healthcare advice and medical services for working people.

In our experience many employers are committed to supporting physical and mental wellbeing for their workforce and are open to employing people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. However, resources are limited. Currently the lack of clear and concise information, bureaucracy, complex processes and limited access to support services are presenting significant barriers to progress in this area.

Our members would like to see much more openness and effective engagement among individuals, employers and medical and social care services, supported by revised and streamlined systems, which recognise work as beneficial to physical and mental wellbeing, and enable effective employment.

Louise Ward is director of policy, communications and standards at the British Safety Council