A couple of weeks ago the IOSH raised the alarm. “IOSH Says More Action Needed on Preventable Deaths” said the header, “The emphasis comes after an annual rise in work-related deaths in Britain” the press release continued. Now that sounds serious, but it also triggers some questions.
Lies, damn lies and …
First question: “an annual rise in work-related deaths in Britain”?
Let’s look at what that means. Ah, well, the numbers went from 142 last year to 144 this year. In absolute numbers this is indeed a somewhat higher number. But looking at trends (which we shouldn’t do from year to year, of course) this is not a rise, it’s a fairly stable level. And the slightly higher number is most likely explainable by random fluctuations. As you may recall from a few weeks back, Norwegian road traffic fatalities went down and up again by 30, and I suppose that Norwegian road users is a smaller population that the working population in Britain!
Doing just a superficial check (Google: “fatalities Britain”), the first hit brought me to the most recent statistics on fatalities in the workplace in Great Britain 2016. You can download the report, or see them online. What do we see? There has been a steady decline in fatalities from the mid 1990s on (with ups and downs, as expected - pity that the HSE didn’t provide a rolling average) which has been levelling out the past few years. So: rise? No. Has something dramatic happened? No.
Of course every fatality is one too many. It’s a tragedy for the people involved, especially those left behind. But if you want to convey that message that then you should just say so and not wrap it in some nonsense (non-existent) trend.
Another reason to be cautious about these ‘Cry wolf’ press releases is that they may trigger simplistic interventionism which may work entirely counter-effective.
Second question: What does the adjective 'preventable' add?
It is an expression for hindsight, for sure and as that it gives me a bad taste. It says that ‘they’ (employers, employees, others?) should have known better. Some of these deaths could have been prevented, if only… And yes, some, maybe even many of them could have been prevented, but what does this conclusion help us? On the positive side it tells us what we can do better next time. On the other, negative side, it’s an expression of blame that gives us an adversarial start. Not a good starting point for improvement I’d say.
But that is in retrospect. It’s also possible to read the IOSH’s press release forward looking: “More action needed on preventable deaths”. But that raises of course another problem. Because, what is a ‘preventable death’, or more general, a ‘preventable accident’? How on earth would you know in advance?
Some may offer the ‘All Accidents Are Preventable’ slogan as an answer. I’m not sure if Shelley Frost, executive director of policy at IOSH, meant this when she stated that “All deaths are avoidable”, but still, don’t both statements make the term ‘preventable’ entirely redundant?
But are they really? All accidents are only preventable if we have full control, full foresight and unlimited resources. Since we have neither of these (after all, we are living in a messy, uncertain world and have to do with limited knowledge, time and resources) not all accidents are preventable.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do our utmost, and so I applaud that IOSH is committed “to supporting professionals in building capability within organisations, enabling them to deliver an effective health and safety agenda for their workforce”. Which then (hopefully) will prevent many accidents, and harm. But I still wonder about the clumsy, binary and unrealistic use of language. Proper use of language is extremely important of doing effective health and safety work, after all!
I understand the sentiment and I appreciate the engagement, because every fatality is a tragedy for those involved. I also understand that organisations like IOSH use each and every opportunity to reach the media in order to raise awareness and get attention for safety. Still… I find it rather unprofessional to seek sensation and beat some drum that isn't there. Now, I only get a feeling that the IOSH (an organisation that has to stand for quality in the profession!) apparently cannot tell the signal from the noise.
There are ways to address the issue without spinning the information this way. Why not frame the message in line with the facts. For example:
“We see no improvement…”
“There are still high levels…”
“Every fatality is one too many, and therefore…”
And please drop that ‘preventable’ nonsense. Talking from hindsight is not a good idea.
Also published on Linkedin.