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There is a business case for health and safety – but is that why we should do it?

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I was at a meeting last week discussing the need for action on a number of health issues and one of the Government officials said that what we needed to do was make the business case.

In other words, we should show employers that it's beneficial if their workers don't get injured.

There were lots of nodding heads in the room. But this kind of thinking really worries me.

Emphasising the business case for health and safety seems to be a growing trend. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced numerous reports and case studies on the business benefits of keeping your workplace safe, and you'll also find pages emphasising the business case on the websites of all the safety professional groups such as the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) RoSPA and the British Safety Council.

Now I'm all in favour of using evidence of the benefits of health and safety to promote it, and of sharing good practice, but we seem to be putting too many of our eggs in one basket. By not emphasising the legal requirements, we're in danger of getting into the situation where employers only feel that they have to do something if it is beneficial for them to do so.

We already see it in the government's approach to regulation, where no new protections for workers are agreed unless there is a “business case”. So what about when there is no business case? Do we just let the employers do what they want?

Unfortunately, a lot of employers today see their employees as being disposable – putting them on zero contracts, or bogus self-employed contracts. They're happy to pay minimum wages in the knowledge that they will have a high staff turnover and often don’t pay sick pay anyway.

Depending on market forces to determine how a worker is treated has already led to a two-tier workforce with workers who are more highly skilled and difficult to replace being more likely to have good occupational health support, sick leave or access to “wellness programmes”.

Then we have those who are cleaners, catering staff, labourers, agricultural etc., who often are employed through agencies where the only criteria seems to be how cheap they are, and who have no access to any kind of occupational health support and are frequently just “let go” if they get ill.

Employers have already worked out that there is no “business case” to treat them with decency and keep them healthy. That is why these are the people who are more likely to be injured or killed at work, or to get musculoskeletal disorders and occupational cancers. Market forces make them more expendable.

Now that the number of pro-active health and safety inspections is at an all-time low, it's hardly surprising that the government and the regulators are going to try to focus more on trying to get employers to do the right thing through trying to appeal to their wallets, and it's true that treating your workers with respect and making sure they're safe and healthy can sometimes be good business sense, but workers do not want the decision on whether to protect their health to be based on whether it is in the employers economic interest. 

All workers should be afforded the same basic rights to a safe and healthy workplace. That is best done by strong regulation, strong enforcement and strong unions.

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