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Positioning the risk and safety profession in a post-Covid world, Claire Philp

Winner of IIRSM 2021 Young Leaders' Essay Competition 

Across the world, the past 18 months have brought the sometimes-peripheral role of public and organisational health and safety into sharp focus. A dramatic reminder that safety and health is often only noticed by its absence, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous human cost, with its legacy yet to unfold.

But like any historically significant event the pandemic offers endless lessons, and with them the promise that many future lives can be saved. The global Covid-19 response was both a masterclass in successful behaviour change and a cautionary tale detailing the pitfalls of such interventions. In many cases the pandemic highlighted challenges that are well known across the health and safety world. Just like the virus has seized the last 18 months to evolve and optimise, the health and safety profession must use this period as a catalyst to examine our methods and rise to future challenges.

What is reasonably foreseeable?

Whilst unprecedented in recent memory, the pandemic was entirely foreseeable. Pandemics have occurred before and have been documented throughout history, and our understanding of viral behaviour has only grown. The challenge comes in the fact that such events are notoriously difficult to forecast, and preparedness comes with a significant cost which, in the absence of the event, looks like a foolish waste of resources – especially when stockpiled materials expire before they are ever needed. This difficulty will resound with any health and safety professional who has struggled to make a business case for contingency plans where there is a lack of recorded evidence of recent incidents or near misses.

Unfortunately, or perhaps mercifully, there is not a perfect linear relationship between unsafe conditions or behaviours and harm. If people were hurt every time they behaved unsafely many health and safety professionals would quickly find ourselves surplus to requirements. Employees would get on board or reap the consequences of their actions 100% of the time. In reality, the absence of safety only occasionally leads to harm, and that harm is only occasionally recorded. In addition, organisations can be lucky in terms of the level of harm incurred from any one incident, breeding a false sense of security and pushing the issue down their priorities. All of these factors work against you when you are advising a board to tackle a potential, future harm through investment which carries a certain, immediate cost. Whilst this will continue to be a challenge beyond the pandemic, the last 18 months has demonstrated the importance of recognising what is truly reasonably foreseeable, and not giving undue weight to our internal statistics which have many limitations.

Messages from the top

Even after an issue appears on the radar of a board, there are some critical hurdles to navigate. At what was the start of the UK’s pandemic, bipolar messages from government figures led to a population which was both unsure of the level of risk they faced and unconvinced by the efficacy of the measures being discussed. This was a difficult place for the Public Health authorities to start in mobilising a response to the virus, but may not look unfamiliar to those who work as health and safety advisors to organisations. Boardrooms will house a range of opinions on any given health and safety topic, some of which will be perpetuated across the employee body, and advisors may feel they are pushing an issue uphill without backing from those they are trying to protect. This challenge is amplified when, as with the Covid crisis, the threat is insidious and invisible, and the measures proposed are financially or personally costly.

One area of the response that displayed a good understanding of behavioural psychology in the public sphere came from the early messages adopted by the UK government. Whilst many of the natural ways of discussing infection control are rooted in negatives (‘don’t pass on the virus’; ‘don’t socialise with others’; ‘don’t leave your home unless it is essential’), these messages tend to be less appealing and less effective in driving behaviour. The use of positive behaviours as instructions (‘stay at home…’), coupled with an explanation of the benefit that extends beyond the individual to a greater goal (‘…protect the NHS, save lives’) is a sophisticated and evidence-based approach. Much like ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’, a slogan designed to tackle the spread of flu but also adopted by the Covid-19 campaign, these simple soundbites break a complex issue down into easy, positive steps which are cumulatively effective and empower the public to take personal action. A health and safety professional could adopt this approach when faced with a behaviour change challenge; first, define the positive behaviours you want to drive, rather than dwelling on the negatives you are seeing. Next, facilitate these behaviours by providing any resources or infrastructure the target group needs in order to comply. Then, clearly communicate these desired behaviours and explicitly describe the benefit. 

However the government also demonstrated the limitations of these simple behavioural prompts, when high profile individuals failed to role model them. The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach can have a major impact on compliance with the rules in public office as well as in organisations. The level of buy-in and accountability at the top as good as predicts the success or failure of any intervention before you even begin.  

Employee consultation

To compound these challenges further, Covid restrictions were imposed on the public from above and rigorously enforced by the police in a manner the public sometimes perceived as heavy handed. Health and safety law mandates colleague consultation in matters of health and safety for good reason; a top-down approach feels like safety is ‘being done to’ employees and generates resistance, whilst adequate consultation can both refine the approach and sell the benefits of what is being proposed, allowing employees to participate voluntarily with the process. View the country as a large organisation, and the same rules should apply.

Unfortunately, due to the initial lockdown and subsequent issuing of guidance, many organisations found themselves in a situation where changes were implemented by small health and safety or facilities teams in the absence of other colleagues. This meant that returning employees faced a very different work environment and practices over which they had no say or control, and experienced the stressors related to such a situation. This brings ongoing challenges as work continues to change whilst employers interpret the winding-down of Covid restrictions.

What is reasonably practicable?

Possibly the greatest area of opportunity for health and safety professionals is the way the pandemic has forced society and organisations to reassess what is reasonably practicable to protect the health and safety of their people. The government had to weigh up risk to the economy with the risk to public health and make unparalleled sacrifices accordingly, and the same tough decisions were being made by business. Prior to 2020, working from home and the infrastructure required to do so was not deemed reasonably practicable by many businesses. Nor was the physical separation of employees from one another, or the use of one-way systems which slow down the rate of work. In some situations, lone working moved from being a risk in itself to a risk management strategy. The business world had to rethink what they could afford and how much business interruption they could tolerate in order to continue operations in the midst of a health emergency. This period bred innovation and ambition at a scale we had not seen before. Whilst these decisions of reasonable practicability were made in the context of a pandemic, this pushing of our boundaries of reasonable practicability may have effects that last far beyond the crisis.

Health and safety professionals should continue to ride the crest of this wave. Remind organisations what is possible when we start to question the fundamentals of how we work and face challenges with an open mind.


Following the pandemic, health and safety professionals should take heed of the successes and mistakes of the national and organisational Covid responses and apply this learning to future health and safety challenges. Do not repeat the mistakes of slow mobilisation, muddled messages, and leaders breaking ‘absolute’ rules. But ensure everybody is brought along for the ride at an early stage, and get the input and ideas of your valuable human asset. Remember that sometimes the simplest messages can be the most effective. Keep them concise and positive, and demonstrate that the target populations’ actions matter; empower them to do their part, whatever the challenge we are looking to overcome.

Remind your leaders that when the situation warrants it, reasonable practicability can go further than they might expect. Unprecedented challenges require unprecedented action, and leaders should be proud to go further than ever before when protecting human health and safety is their driver.

Most of all, be mindful of the power of proactive health and safety. The international responses to this pandemic have showcased that prevention, whilst painful and costly, is a drop in the ocean when compared to the price of the cure.


Claire Philp, IIRSM Member

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