I’ve just spent three days in Stratford – two days at the BOHS Annual Conference and an additional day in advance of the main event running a Professional Development Course (Diploma exam preparation “taster day”) on behalf of the Faculty of Occupational Hygiene. The conference itself was running over three days this year, but I had to return home a day early, which was a pity as it was a great event – the largest for quite a number of years.
As usual there were plenty of excellent technical sessions and workshops. Due to structure of the programme, with parallel sessions, I wasn’t able to attend everything I was interested in, but I came away with plenty to think about and will be posting some reports over the next few days.
The opening Warner Lecture was delivered by David Blunkett. It’s not the first time that we’ve been addressed by a prominent politician, but this year, with the concerns about the attitude of the current Conservative led coalition government toward health and safety, with impending cutbacks to the HSE and the review of the legislative framework, I think the audience were particularly keen to hear what the former Labour Minister, now in opposition, had to say.
He came across to me as someone who was genuinely interested in health and safety issues, pointing out that when he was 12 years old his his father, who worked in a gas works, had been killed in an industrial accident. He had obviously done his homework too, seeming to have some understanding about what occupational hygiene was about.
Inevitably much of his talk focused on Lord Young’s report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, commissioned by the Government. His view was that it was important to apply good “common sense” to health and safety, otherwise it undermines the important work that needs to be done, and people become sceptical. So we have to understand why the Government asked Lord Young to undertake his review. But he stressed that although there was a need for some change we shouldn’t move too far to the other extreme.
He discussed the dilemmas and difficulties involved in dealing with health and safety when there are economic implications but emphasised that we mustn’t lose our emphasis on prevention. There was a need to persuade government that what we are doing in preventing ill health at work and creating a good working environment is actually a selling point for British Industry.
After lunch the Keynote address was given by Judith Hackitt, the chair of the HSE board. The HSE are facing a 35% cut in their budget during 2014-5 and the Minister for Health and Safety recently announced major changes to how the HSE will have to operate as a result of this. Much of her talk was aimed at reassuring the audience that things were not as bad as the headlines suggest and that health issues such as asbestos and carcinogens will remain priorities and they will continue to address emerging health issues such as nanoparticles and the suspected link between shift work and cancer. However, the real implications of the cutbacks remain to be seen and t I feel that here is little to be optimistic about.
I think that there is no doubt that at the moment that health and safety is on the defensive. As a profession we are facing challenging times and its important that we participate vigorously in the debate and do more to engage with politicians and other influential figures. The involvement of David Blunkett and Judith Hackitt in our conference was a good step in that direction
(Image credit: http://shakespeare2006.net)