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Richard Steele, Chief Executive of Port Skills and Safety (PSS), the UK's professional ports health and safety membership organization, discusses future health and safety priorities for the maritime industry.

UK ports have been sharing accident information through Port Skills and Safety for many years as part of their commitment to safety improvement. This approach has proved effective as, since 2000, the sector has reduced statutory reportable accidents by 59%. Simply put, the industry has become safer.

But nobody is sitting back thinking that the job is done.

Clichéd as it may sound, one injury is one too many. While the industry has made a lot of progress, it is important to keep the rate of improvement going. As with many things in life, the better you get the harder it is to improve.

Ports have sweated core safety to achieve the improvement. Risk assessments, elimination of hazards or substitution with lesser hazards, engineering controls (e.g. plant/people segregation), administrative controls (e.g. procedures and training) and personal protective equipment have brought us to where we are today. Ports must keep a firm foot on this pedal.

How, then, should we tackle the remaining 41%?

Core safety and skills are the prerequisites for further improvement, but they are not enough to achieve zero harm. You cannot ‘procedure out’ or ‘train out’ all accidents. People and their workplaces are too variable, too complex and too subject to change to have a procedure for every eventuality or for every individual’s circumstances.

If you ask someone their number-one priority at work, “to be safe” is unlikely to be the first answer. Nevertheless, UK ports understand that it is the way that people and organisations work, how they value health and safety and the culture that they genuinely embody that is important.

To catalyse positive change, the sector is focusing on human factors, values and behaviours. It is important to understand why people do what they do and how to create workplaces that actively promote a positive health and safety culture through leadership, engagement and empowerment. It is not easy to write a good procedure, as anyone who has tried to self-assembly kit furniture can agree. It is considerably harder still to grow and make real a culture where everyone genuinely shares the same values and trust. You still need good procedures for clarity, communication and understanding. But a zero harm culture also needs every person in the organisation to be a safety champion, knowing that they will be backed up if they spot a problem and will be listened to when they have an idea for making the workplace healthier and safer.

Organisations intent on zero harm need to accentuate the positives. Health and safety has tended to be defined negatively, and has been dealt with primarily on a reactive basis, when something happens or is seen as an unacceptable risk. Many port organisations including ABP are looking at health and safety from a more positive perspective.

A positive health and safety culture organisation is based on proactively and continuously trying to anticipate developments and events. Importantly, it sees people as agents bringing flexibility and resilience. It empowers people to act as problem-solvers and allies in successful, sustainable workplaces. To achieve this requires changes in thinking, language and additions to how we measure success. While we still need to record and investigate accidents, we also need positive indicators to promote engaged people at all levels, ensuring that our people are spotting and anticipating issues, thinking of better ways to work, getting involved and learning from doing things right.

Getting core safety right and developing a successful culture will take us much closer to zero harm or even ‘Beyond Zero’, as ABP aspires to. There is also more work to be done to address baseline physical and mental health.

The Health and Safety Executive has described health as the silent partner in health and safety. In the UK, occupational lung disease is estimated at 12,000 deaths per year. Compare that with 144
worker fatalities in workplace accidents in 2017/18. Musculoskeletal disorders account for 41% of all work-related ill health cases and 34% of all working days lost due to ill-health. The culture that ABP and the sector as a whole have set their sights on, working together through PSS, has to support healthy workplaces. A commitment to zero harm includes reducing harm to health. Our engaged and supported people need to be both health and safety champions.

UK research indicates that 42% of people with ill health believe that it affects their work, which gives another reason for shining the spotlight on health.

If ill health affects concentration or attention, for example, that could put an individual at greater risk. Through sharing information across ports, we are starting to measure how healthy our industry is, which is important in order to be able to achieve positive change.

Another major issue in attaining a zero harm workplace is mental health. In the UK, 49% of all ill health loss (12.5 million working days per year) is a result of mental ill health. On top of this, mental health related presenteeism (working whilst ill at reduced ability) costs employers three times the cost of the person being absent. In many cases the roots of a person’s condition may be outside of work, but they can’t leave it all at the gate. There is a clear business case and a duty of care for organisations to address mental ill health in the workplace. Additionally, as with physical health, mental ill health conditions such as stress may impact on a person’s judgement and attention leaving them more vulnerable to workplace risks. The challenge is to provide a good work environment (a safe, healthy environment, a sense of security and autonomy, good line management and effective communication) as well as appropriate support to those experiencing mental ill health.

The good news is that the features that support an effective safety culture are the same as those that support good health and good mental health. It is about creating, communicating and delivering a complete approach across strategy, systems, processes and people. Culture, health and mental health are the remaining pieces of the puzzle, alongside core safety and skills. They are more difficult to get right because human factors are more complex than systems and infrastructure. Together they bring a ‘whole person’ approach to health and safety that is essential to achieving zero harm.