Posted by Matthew Waller

OHS – Past, Present and Future

To mark ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2023’, this guest blog from our Associate Consultant Muhammad Dawood looks at how management of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has evolved, whilst examining key issues today and going forward.

Dawood is a Chartered health and safety practitioner based in Pakistan, with experience working on major construction projects and providing advisory, auditing and training services globally.

Evolution in approaches to OHS

The discipline of OHS has evolved significantly over the past few decades reflecting the relevant changes in applicable legislation, workplace practices, societal expectations, and advancements in technology and science. Some of the key trends and developments include:

  • A shift to a proactive approach: Historically, OHS was focused on learning from incidents that had caused harm or injury to workers. However, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of a more proactive approach, which involves identifying all foreseeable risks and addressing them before they cause harm.
  • An increasing emphasis on worker participation: There has been a growing recognition that workers are the best source of information on workplace risks and the role workers can play in OHS decision-making processes. Where this works well, workers are typically consulted on matters of OHS policy, objectives, risk assessments, implementation of risk controls, incident investigations and management reviews. This involvement of workers is also reflected in laws across different countries, the core OHS Conventions of the ILO, and one of the most widely used OHS standards – ISO45001:2018.
  • Greater use of technology: Advances in technology have enabled the development of new tools and systems for identifying and controlling workplace risks. For example, sensors are now being used to assess environmental conditions and hazardous substances, lifting aids and machines to carry out heavy work, or hoists for material handling and managing workplace risks.
  • Behavioral focus: Behavioral safety plays a crucial role in OHS by focusing on the behavior of employees and how it can impact their safety and that of their colleagues in the workplace. There is significant increase in focus to reduce the incidence of workplace injuries and illnesses by encouraging employees to take personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their colleagues, and by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and resources necessary to do so.
New issues under consideration

Overall, OHS is evolving to take a more holistic and comprehensive approach, considering a wider range of factors that can impact employee well-being – highlighting the integral role of good OHS management in general workplace management.

Whereas the focus of OHS had previously been on electrical, mechanical, physical and chemical hazards at work, now the scope has widened to include issues related to inherent safety, mental health, wellbeing, bias and equity.

  • Ergonomics: Employers are recognising the importance of providing ergonomically safe workstations by implementing ergonomic assessments and interventions. OHS takes ergonomics into consideration by providing guidance on how to accommodate the needs of older, disabled and vulnerable workers, such as ergonomics and workplace design.
  • Technological hazards: Emerging technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we live and work, but they also bring with them a range of OHS issues. The use of latest technology like Virtual Reality (VR) can cause motion sickness, dizziness, eye strain, headaches, and visual problems. In addition, the use of surveillance technologies and wearable devices can lead to feelings of mistrust and anxiety among workers.
  • Psychosocial hazards: There is a growing recognition of psychosocial hazards in the workplace, such as stress, bullying, and harassment. Working from home in isolation can affect mental health, and the absence of face-to-face communication may lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. OHS practices are developing to take these hazards into consideration by providing guidance on how to identify and address these issues.
  • Work-Life balance: The balance between work and personal life has become increasingly important for employee health and well-being. OHS is developing to take work-life balance into consideration by providing guidance on flexible work arrangements, leave policies, offering employee assistance programs (EAPs), and providing resources for stress management and resilience-building.
  • Diversity and inclusion: There is a growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. OHS is developing to take this into consideration by providing guidance on how to address issues related to discrimination, bias, and cultural sensitivity.
  • Greater integration with sustainability and employee management: As the above summary shows, OHS is increasingly being integrated within broader employee management objectives and also sustainability goals, with a greater emphasis on promoting healthy and safe workplaces as part of overall sustainability efforts.
Are things getting better or worse for workers?

Clearly there have been significant improvements in OHS standards and awareness, but there are still many challenges and areas for improvement. It is important for governments, employers, and workers to continue to work together to ensure safe and healthy workplaces for all.

In terms of improvements, most countries have introduced legislation and regulations to protect workers from hazards in the workplace, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, machinery accidents, and physical strains. Most formal workplaces have also implemented safety programs, training, and procedures to prevent accidents and injuries. As highlighted above, more employers are taking steps to promote a healthy work-life balance.

But some industries, such as construction and mining, continue to have high rates of workplace injuries and fatalities. Additionally, many workers around the world still lack basic OHS protections, particularly those in informal and low-wage sectors.

Another challenge is the impact of changing work patterns and emerging technologies on OHS. As outlined above, artificial intelligence and automation can improve workplace safety by reducing the risk of accidents and injuries but they can also create new hazards and risks, and it will be important that OHS regulations keep pace with these developments.

Finally, whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of OHS, particularly in terms of infection control measures and mental health support for workers, it has also exposed vulnerabilities in many OHS systems, such as the lack of preparedness for a global health crisis.

How things have changed (if at all) since OHS became a Fundamental Convention?

In 2022 the ILO made safe and healthy working environment a Fundamental Principle and Right at Work. In other words the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No.155) and Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No.187) have become ‘Core Conventions’ alongside those related to child labour, forced labour, discrimination and freedom of association and collective bargaining.  This means that all member nations, even if they have not ratified the two core OHS Conventions, now have an obligation to realise, respect and promote the principles concerning the fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment.

This is expected to lead to significant improvements in the protection of workers’ health and safety in the workplace, including the development of legal frameworks, workplace policies, training programs, and collective bargaining. However, changes will inevitably take time.

While some countries might already be complying with most of the requirements of OHS conventions, others with weak OHS legislation and/or implementation are likely to face challenges. Particular constraints may include difficulties in finding budget to undertake a thorough review and update of legislation, a  lack of available skilled OHS specialists to conduct such high level tasks, or a lack of local enforcement capacity or competence in implementing the new requirements.

In this situation, companies have a role to play in asking their suppliers and service providers to adhere to the ILO Fundamental Conventions through their supply chains by conducting supplier audits, including OHS clauses in contracts, providing OHS training and resources, establishing OHS monitoring systems, and collaborating with other stakeholders such as trade unions.

This will help protect workers’ rights, improve business reputations, ensure compliance with regulations, provide increased access to international finance, reduce insurance premiums, increase efficiency and productivity, and reduce risks and downtime.