Ross Haworth: Focus on safety could be putting health at risk

HEALTH and safety has become something of a pejorative expression due to the overreaction of zealous officials who see a potential inferno in every candle on a birthday cake. This is a pity, as health and safety is a serious matter, especially in the offshore oil and gas industry.

Scottish industry has, on the whole, instilled a robust culture of safety underpinned by well-defined HSE policies and processes which we fully support. However, the current emphasis on safety may be at the expense of workforce health.

In 2009, the Workplace Law Network reported that, while safety in the workplace has improved since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced, workforce health has actually deteriorated. This trend is echoed offshore where medical evacuations from installations for health reasons have increased while those due to injuries caused by accidents have decreased.

Companies that consider their workforce’s health a luxury that drops to the bottom of the “to do” list quickly sober up when they realise the impact such neglect has on their bottom line. Workplace absence alone accounts for the loss of around 175 million working days a year in the UK. And the charity Nuffield Health maintains that workers who are unwell and turn up for work cost companies even more than absent colleagues – so-called “presenteeism” costs UK business up to £15 billion a year.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways of engaging employees through health awareness campaigns and promotions. As with most things, prevention is better than cure and a company with a proactive occupational health programme and a balanced HSE policy will reap the benefits of having a fitter workforce and a more productive one too.

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It is time for employers to put the health back into health and safety and for the two to be given equal importance in the workplace. After all, safety ultimately comes down to human behaviour and a healthy person is much more likely to be a safe one.

• Ross Haworth is managing director of Abermed and a sponsor of the Oil & Gas UK’s Doctors’conference being held in Aberdeen today.