Kris De Meester (IOE)

Mainstreaming OSH: Putting people and their work at the centre to ensure healthy and safe workplaces for the future

Kris De Meester (IOE), Manager Health & Safety Affairs, International Industrial Relations

Statement | 02 April 2019
For the business community that I represent, the health, safety and wellbeing of workers are very important. Safe working conditions are an essential element for the quality production of goods and provision of services. Addressing health and safety provides opportunities to improve business efficiency as well as safeguarding workers. Taking calculated risks is part of being successful in business. Prevention is the most rational means to protect against risk. Prevention allows the elimination or reduction of uncertainties, although it cannot guarantee total safety or zero harm.

The protection of workers from harm has been at the core of the ILO’s mandate since its inception in 1919. The early focus on standards aiming at protecting against specific risks and persons in high risk situations and in particular, branches of economic activity, was necessary and proved to be a successful starting point. When the limitations of that approach became obvious we moved towards a systems approach to occupational safety and health (OSH), based on the assessment of risks and prevention principles. And recently we embedded that in national strategies and programmes.

After 100 years of work in this area, we observe immense improvement. Despite what we achieved together, the potential for further improvement is still vast. The results are also not at the same level in all parts of the world and some branches of the economy are much better performers than others. The same is true for individual enterprises. Progress to reach the level of protection we really want is slow. Strategies and policies are often not having sufficient impact. It is therefore time to rethink our approach and to explore new ways to obtain results in a more effective and efficient way.

The world faces a vast array of global economic, social and political challenges. All the changes and challenges present their own set of opportunities and threats, some of which are familiar and some of which are not. Addressing these issues requires an innovative and creative approach that leaves behind preconceived ideas and out-dated paradigms.

In that context we have to ask ourselves where the OSH community is. Is it on the forefront? Is it part of transition decisions, processes and management? Does the OSH community have any impact on important management decisions or on Member-States’ socio-economic policies? The answer is no and my statement is strong and certainly thought provoking: “OSH as a discipline is a barrier to progress for the health and safety of workers in itself!” It is still considered as an add-on, not as an integral part of business activity or economic activity in general.

The challenge is to mainstream OSH in all segments of economic activity from conception, to planning, to execution and delivery of goods and services. We have to put the people and their work at the centre of our OSH policy. Decent work encompasses working in a safe way with no harm to health. OSH should not be a separate measure, service or discipline. It’s not OSH; it’s all elements from the overarching world of work.

So, what approach should we take? What is our business case? If we launch programs and policies, it is with the aim of having impact. If we want impact, we should aim for a ‘decent place to work’. The key question therefore should be ‘How to create an organization where people are able and willing to do their best work?’ This approach transcends health and safety and focuses on all aspects of work, now and in the future.

When you observe and analyse good and best practices you will see that success does not stem from a ‘technical’ approach with risk assessment, prevention measures and procedures, but from a much broader action that puts people in the centre. Employers, as driving forces in our society have an important responsibility and we consider it essential that they demonstrate leadership in the area of OSH by making it an integrated part of work in the future! The starting point to create organizations where people are able and willing to do their best work is to continuously seek a balance between the individual worker with his or her capacities, skills, personality, values and aspirations and his or her working situation. The elements that constitute the working situation are the work content, the working conditions, the work environment and the work relations within a frame of systems and processes that constitute the work organisation. Authentic, supportive leadership, respect and trust are enhancing factors to get to the above result.

A decent workplace is one built on trust. Trust drives sustainable engagement and engagement drives business performance. The benefits speak for themselves for both employers and workers. Trust is not something which is merely “nice-to-have”. Rather, trust is a hard-nosed business asset, which can deliver quantifiable economic value. When trust is high, speed of execution goes up and costs go down. For that and other sound reasons, it makes good sense to consistently find ways to enhance trust levels both within and external to an organization.

Enthusiastic workers, people that work with deep affection and pride - that is where the win-win lies for companies and workers. We must strive to deploy people based on their talents and skills. Craft jobs around people’s capacities, taking into account their personal needs and aspirations. No longer simply ‘command and control’ by management, but a facilitating work environment. Authentic leadership, servant leaders, that is the model of the future and a huge lever for healthy workplaces. It means leadership aimed at personal development and support. Traditional management and leadership is about arranging and telling; true authentic leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.

Do not simply rely on a collective approach; don’t be afraid of looking at the individual. No collective system, no risk assessment tool is capable of capturing the true needs, personality and aspirations of individuals. So, allow individual workers, within a certain frame, to decide when, where and how to work to get results. Design jobs for autonomy, meaningfulness, progress and competence. That is participation, involvement and engagement in the true sense of the words.

Exceptional companies create a high performance culture allowing them to thrive in our ever-changing world. Exceptional people are able to develop winning strategies and ensure their execution. They allow for organizational growth and profitability, more creativity and innovation and more satisfaction and a more engaged and better-developed workforce. Failure is normal and success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your drive and enthusiasm.

It is easy to criticise the above by saying: “That might work in developed countries but no way this would work in the developing world.” But than I ask you: “What does ‘the right to a safe and healthy working environment’ mean in the informal economy or even in the formal one if people lack the proper skills and competence for the job, if they lack the proper and safe tools and equipment, if no (personal) protection is provided?” Even in such a situation with all its limitations it is possible to improve and create a better work environment based on the above mentioned approach… in a more effective way than the traditional OSH approach!

Technology constitutes an important lever for decent work and safe and healthy working conditions. There was and is resistance to approaches based upon ‘a culture of prevention’ and ‘behaviour based safety’ as some see it as shifting responsibilities to workers. Without completely abandoning the underlying ideas, technology will help to overcome the barriers and resistance to a better safety (and work) performance. Technology can substitute or assist people working in dirty, dull, heavy duty, repetitive, monotonous, unhealthy jobs or dangerous environments. It can help to reduce physical, ergonomic and psychosocial risks. If properly used and introduced in a participative way, (digital) technology will empower workers and will lead to an augmented workforce. And remember, the people and their work in the centre and the technology built around that, not the other way.

The ‘Future of Work’ offers opportunities to create conditions for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, shared prosperity and decent (safe and healthy) work for all. All of us have a role to play to work this out, but in order to have impact and overcome ideological and mental barriers we have to build trust first. Only a genuine dialogue between all actors, based on trust and respect, can help us to gain control and steer the boat we all share, not to a precise destination, but at least in the direction we want. A ship is always safe at shore but that is not what it’s built for. Let’s all try to be captains not afraid of troubled waters but skilfully moving ahead with evidence-based precision.