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Health and safety in the workplace has a long history; it dates back to the early 1800's when the "Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802" was passed. This was the first piece of protective legislation for workers regarding health and safety. Over the next 170 years, Governments gradually limited hours, banned child labour, provided industrial inspectors, and introduced compensation. New safety laws were generally introduced after disasters occurred in the workplace; this led to the generation of a mass of legislation.
Prior to 1970, health and safety law in Britain was a mess, "Agius, (2010) states that there were more than 500 separate pieces of legislation covering a multitude of dangerous substances and situations at work, that were administered by nine separate Government departments". It was gradually recognised that rigid enforcement of the law was not practicable, leading to a reduction of industrial competitiveness and overload of the court system
The legal system was reviewed by the Robens Committee in 1970, which was led by Lord Robens. The committee found that the existing legislation which included 30 Acts and 500 sets of Regulations was defective in that there was too much law, it was over-elaborate and it was preoccupied with the physical circumstances in which work was carried out as opposed to the workforce and the systems of work. The Robens Committee report was produced in 1972 which concluded that in spite of this volume of law, there had been no significant reduction in the numbers of people killed and injured at work.
A new Act was therefore framed, with the intention to cover all eventualities by putting a general obligation on employers to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees. This Act is known as the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 (HSWA), and the primary responsibility for its enforcement falls on the Health and Safety Executive.
The HSWA adopted a very different approach to that of previous legislation. Wilson, (1985) explains that the object of the Act was to simplify the jumble of inspectorates which had developed since the 1800's, and to encourage self regulation rather than reliance on the Government to provide regulation. Regulation which would have previously been enforced by the Inspectorates was now grouped in the Health and Safety Executive.
The HSE (2010) website gives details on the essential features of the Act, which are as follows:
- It requires all employers to provide, as far as is reasonably practicable, a healthy and safe workplace.
- It requires employers to take care not only of their employees but also of other people visiting the workplace.
- It requires all personnel to prevent, as far as is practicable, emission of toxic substances into the general atmosphere.
- It requires manufacturers to ensure that their products are reasonably safe, and to provide information on safety precautions to be taken in their use.
- It requires employees to take reasonable precautions for the safety of themselves and of others.
- It makes provision for the appointment of trade union or employee safety representatives and requires employers, if requested by such representatives, to set up safety committees.
- It established the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and the HSE, which has responsibility for enforcing the law, having taken over the various original Inspectorates. These include the factories, chemicals, agriculture, offshore oil and gas, nuclear and railways Inspectorates.
Over the last 25 years, Health and Safety legislation has evolved. The HSWA provides the framework for modern legislation; it has become an umbrella act with many regulations that have been developed from it, which must be complied with.
All the Regulations, take roughly the same practical form, which is to:
- Assess risk, implement controls to reduce those risks, and make sure they work.
- Educate and train workers.
- Provide personal protection when all other appropriate measures have been taken.
- If necessary, provide environmental monitoring and surveillance of exposed staff.
An important Regulation that has been introduced from the HSWA is "The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999". This Regulation generally makes more explicit what employers are required to do to manage Health and Safety under the HSWA. Like the Act, they apply to every work activity. The main requirement on employers is to carry out a risk assessment. Employers with five or more employees need to record the significant findings of the risk assessment. This Regulation is the backbone of all working practices in all work environments.
Another significant Regulation is the "Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 (as amended)" which applies to the way you work with these substances. This Regulation not only introduced the guidance on the handling of hazardous substances, but also storage and disposal procedures. It incorporated the approach of working exposure limits, while working with dangerous substances, which was a major step in reducing occupational diseases.
Regulations are issued by the HSC with the approval of the Secretary of State; they are part of the law, and their provisions are mandatory. It is an offence to be in breach of a Regulation. The HSC also issues Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP) covering and explaining the Regulations. Breaching an ACOP itself is not an offence, although unless there is proof of effective alternative measures being used, failure to comply with an ACOP may be taken as proof that the employer is not meeting the general obligation to provide as safe and healthy a work environment as is practicable.
Law is of course useless unless it is being enforced. The role of enforcer of Health and Safety legislation is delegated by the HSC to the HSE and Environmental Health Officers in local authorities. Inspectors have wide powers to enter workplaces. They have the authority to inspect premises, take samples, and can request that the area be sealed off. They are able to issue Enforcement Notices of improvement requiring matters to improve within a stated time, or prohibition of further activity that is deemed to be dangerous will occur.
As well as National Legislation, there is European Legislation that must also be complied with. The European Union has produced a series of Directives in the field of Health and Safety, all which when agreed by the Council of Ministers and the Commission become binding in all the member countries. They have proceeded on the basis of individual hazards, setting standards which are then enforced by the appropriate National Agencies. Agius (2010) explains that the most recent Directives are concerned with noise, the manual handling of loads, carcinogens and biological agents. European Directives are developed by the consensus between representatives of the National Governments and their experts, and once they are issued, there is a time limit by which the member nations must comply.
With an updated Health and Safety Legal system, combined with the threat of punitive penalties, which the courts can impose, there is now a considerable burden of responsibility on employers.
There have been many benefits to a review of the legislation, the HSE (2010) reports that since the introduction of the HSWA in 1974, there has been a dramatic decrease in work-related injury rates and numbers in Great Britain. Research suggests that almost half of this decrease is due to changing patterns of employment. Statistics show that there has been a massive 84% decrease in the number of fatal injuries to employees since 1974, as well as a 75% reduction in the number of reported non-fatal injuries, covering all main sectors of industry. Trends on work-related ill health are less clear, due to the fact that comprehensive data has only begun to be available in the last decade or so.
In spite of clearly stated Laws and Regulations, there are still incidences of serious accidents occurring in the workplace. One such incident happened in a laboratory at the University of California in 2008. Christenson, (2009) who was the journalist that reported the story for the Los Angeles Times, described the fatal burning of a research assistant by a chemistry lab fire. Sheharbano Sangji who was 23 years old, had not been properly trained, and was not wearing protective clothing when an experiment working with pyrophoric liquids exploded; she lost control of the situation to the extent that she ran away in the opposite direction of the laboratory's emergency shower, and was therefore unable to distinguish the fire that led to second and third-degree burns over 43% of her body. Sadly she died 18 days later.
The State Regulators fined the University more than $31,000 for three serious violations of workplace safety laws. It was found that the University had not addressed safety concerns that were highlighted after an internal safety inspection that had been carried out two months prior to the fatal accident.
It is occurrences like this that demonstrate why proper training, protective clothing, and an efficient safety system are vital in order to protect people's safety. It is important that Health and Safety issues are taken as seriously in Universities as they are in industry. A group of chemists (Francisco Javier Penas et al. 2006), who were involved in the design of a chemical engineering laboratory, state that "by promoting safety at the university level, it will have a positive impact on the people who will share the professional environment of the students in the future." They make clear that the main objective of their work was to show how industrial health and safety criteria may be applied in university teaching. The design of a laboratory should not dictate the safety system in place; the system should be able to be applied in any laboratory, as long as the relevant training has been given.
Wrightson (1994) discusses that training is a fundamental aspect of health, safety, and environmental issues which is often not given the necessary priority. "Training is an important way of achieving competence, and helps to convert information into safe working practices." New employees or students should undergo induction training which should include the arrangements for health, safety, and environmental matters in terms of the health and safety policy, their duties and responsibilities, laboratory procedures and rules, first aid, and emergency procedures. It must not be assumed that because new employees have formal qualifications that they are already aware of health and safety aspects. New employees and students may have worked in a laboratory before, but they still need to become acquainted with the specific requirements of their new laboratory, and their new duties and responsibilities.
An induction checklist should be used to record training, which should be signed and dated by both the trainer and the trainee as evidence that the training has been completed successfully.
Training should not just be a one off process at the start of a new place of work or study, it should be an on-going feature of laboratory work, and additional training is needed when there is exposure to new and increased risks, which may arise from using new equipment, new processes and new techniques.
Understanding how to develop a training program that meets these requirements while providing engaging information for laboratory workers has been an ongoing struggle for the University of Vermont's (UVM) Hazardous Waste Management Program over the last 20 years. This is due to the fact that laboratory workers' primary duties do not involve laboratory emergency planning or chemical waste management.
Laboratory workers and students are educated people who have a broad interest in the sciences. However, this does not necessarily mean that they have practical knowledge associated with all laboratory operations they undertake. "Stuart (2010) states that it is not uncommon to find students handling chemicals without being fully aware of all the potential hazards", and argues that there are three main components involved with safety training regarding laboratories.
One component of meeting the training challenge is acquainting the laboratory population with the basic terminology associated with chemical safety concepts as well as specific regulatory jargon.
Another component is engaging the laboratory audience in a way that creates observable behaviour change while preparing them for unexpected events. The importance of this portion of the training is particularly acute in the laboratory setting. The changing nature of laboratory work means that the opportunities for chemical substitution or engineering controls of chemicals hazards are limited. Administrative controls which rely on appropriate lab worker behaviour are often the first line of defence against chemical hazards.
A third aspect of the laboratory safety training program is its role as a component of the emergency planning and response efforts of the host institution. These efforts encompass not only the protection of the workers immediately involved in the emergency, but also the larger community, both inside and outside the laboratory building, as a whole.
The author is of the opinion that this is an aspect which is sometimes not emphasised enough regarding on-going training. Emergency training can be easily forgotten in times extreme pressure; this may be due to the fact that it is taught during an initial induction process but may never be used again until there is a disaster. If a person is not familiar with a situation then it is likely that they will panic and will not act appropriately, therefore it should be the case that people are reminded regularly of such training to prevent them ignoring life saving procedures.
A problem that arises for many Universities is that there been an increasing number of foreign students studying within British Universities. If the students originate from countries out with the European Union, then there is a possibility that the safety training they have been given might not be of the same standards. If the legislation in these countries is not as stringent as it is in Europe then there is a higher risk of accidents occurring. It is important that these students are trained properly and informed of all aspects of Health and Safety, in order to protect themselves, others around them, and also the reputation of their institute of study.
People from different nationalities and ethnic groups express themselves and understand the behaviours of others in different ways, which are informed by specific sets of cultural knowledge and conventions. Thus cross-cultural misunderstandings occur which can lead to health and safety problems. Therefore a new approach to the management of health and safety is required.
Research was carried out by The Global Safety project regarding the safety of migrant workers in the construction industry; it revealed migrant workforces as a key factor in the management of health and safety, with visual methods of communicating health and safety messages as a widely used solution. It was decided that these areas needed further investigation and a series of pilot studies were carried out to gather data. It was suggested that pictures should be used and that the consequences of inappropriate actions should be shown.
Participants felt that translation of health and safety information was not always successful in developing countries and in the UK, there is increasing use of, and recommendations for the use of visual media for communicating about health and safety in multicultural contexts.
Culture frames the ways in which we express ourselves and how we interpret the actions of others. We can express ourselves in a number of ways:
- Verbally - What we say and how we say it.
- Nonverbally - Body language.
- Through action - Doing things in a particular way (consciously or unconsciously).
These issues make it important that new students and staff, whatever their background, should be given sufficient training to allow for consistent safe practices. Training should be tailored to the needs of each workplace, to provide any person specific guidance on the hazards they will be exposed to. A poorly planned staff induction program often results in poor employee performance on the job; according to Carol Boyd (2003), effectively managing the health and welfare of employees can lead to improved morale of staff, which in turn provides enhanced employee contribution.
Due to evolving legislation, induction systems must evolve as well in order to provide protection for employers and employees. In recent years, young people have become more familiar with web-based activities instead of paper-based; health and safety induction should be no different.
Mark Carey (2008) explains that employers have to collect and classify every employee's work-related personal information; an employer has to fulfil certain legislative obligations to ensure they meet regulatory compliance standards as well as ensuring employee safety. This can be a time consuming task, and a more cost-effective process is to adopt an online induction program for new employees, which makes it easy to manage and report on the progress of new staff as they acquire the skills they need to do specific jobs or use specific machinery.
There are many benefits to an online system, such as consistent high quality training, which is why private sector companies are increasingly turning towards this approach.