Once again the NIPSA Annual Health and Safety Conference was a tremendous success with over 120 Health and Safety Reps across NIPSA’s membership base in attendance.

Mary Black outlined the broad context of the determinants of health and the pattern of inequalities in health and wellbeing in Northern Ireland. She referred to the new public health framework ‘Making Life Better’ which identifies a whole system strategic framework for public health and has six key themes. Workplace is an important setting for promoting health and wellbeing. Mary identified the scale of the issue with 1:6 workers identified as dealing with anxiety, depression or stress. She also made specific reference to the level of alcohol consumption amongst the general population and use of alcohol as an important factor in both how people cope with stress and as a stressor.

Mary referred to Dame Carol Black’s review and the three principle objectives of workplace and mental health. She highlighted that the Public Health Agency’s implementation model and the ‘Take 5’ approach from The New Economics Foundation which aim to promote mental health and wellbeing. Conference also heard about the economics of the issue with an estimated £51.6 billion cost to the UK economy each year. Mary highlighted the key sources of stress at work and what can be done to address structural, environmental and relationships in the workplace together with programmes of support. She highlighted the importance of managing change and clear and open communication. Mary concluded by drawing attention to the Public Health Agency workplace health model, based on the World Health Organisation Healthy Workplace. She highlighted the resource guide and online assessment tool together with the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management competency indicator tools as useful supports for promoting health in the workplace. She also reflected on how the Public Health Agency is addressing health in its own workplace and the importance of partnership working in order to achieve progress.

Finally, Mary reflected on the need to address the whole environment and using practical, well tested tools in a systematic manner to foster change in the workplace. She highlighted the importance of ‘looking after each other’ as we embark on an unprecedented period of change across all sectors in Northern Ireland.

The next speaker of the day was Ian Tasker, Scottish TUC Health and Safety Officer. The presentation looked at and exploded the myths being peddled by the coalition Government to support their unsubstantiated ideological attacks on health and safety legislation and enforcement in Great Britain.

It was pointed out that there were half the health and safety regulations in existence in GB than there were when the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) was introduced exactly 40 years ago and 40% cuts in HSE funding meant far fewer inspections.

Recognising the devolved power of HSE enforcement in Northern Ireland the STUC cautioned against routinely following the Westminster lead.

Those who were suffering most from the attacks on health and safety were those at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale, in insecure and unsafe employment, living and working in communities where existing health inequalities can only flourish due to the Government's actions.

Attacking the business lobby for cooking the books on the burdens of health and safety regulation the presentation pointed out that the average spend on managing health and safety by British employers is £325, hardly overly burdensome even in today's financial climate.

As workers suffer as a result of this politically motivate deregulation the accusatory fingers of employers points to the sick and injured, shouting workers have to become more resilient.

The STUC argue that resilience cannot be developed in the workforce by employing consultants but has to develop organically. This can only be done by employers addressing the workplace issues causing the injury and ill-health. working with unions to build safer, healthier and successful workplaces and resilience will follow.

In conclusion the STUC stated that HSE(GB) has to be given its autonomy back, free from Government interference, we have to reverse deregulation and re-introduce occupational ill health as a regulatory priority and the STUC would be arguing for health and safety to be devolved as part of the ongoing discussion on increased devolution for the Scottish Parliament.

Following this, Ian Draper, Network Co-ordinator with the UK National Work-Stress Network delivered his presentation.

Ian covered a range of issues related to the causes, symptoms, effects, costs and impact of work-related stress and associated illnesses commonly found amongst many workforces, and specifically within the Public Sector.

He began by highlighting the firm conviction that “at the end of a working day, nobody should be feeling that they have been damaged or traumatised by their work”, and that the workplace climate should be one of fair and appropriate treatment for all, no matter what their status in the organisation.

He noted that stressors come from a variety of angles, including at home associated with caring duties, personal relationships, financial worries, and concerns about job security, bereavement and more. These are effects that we all take with us in our daily routines.

On arrival at work there is a further set of stress factors, including work demand, lack of control over work-rate, relationship issues in the workplace including a prevalence in many sectors for poor management resulting in bullying. It is often the mix of those personal issues with the work issues that create unrelenting pressure in both environments and having a serious effect on relationships both at home and in the workplace, as well as ability to carry out work effectively and efficiently.

Continued excessive downward pressures create significant hormonal imbalances within the human body through over-production. These important hormones have a specific job to do, but when pressure is excessive and relentless they affect health, well-being and the auto-immune systems. Such problems lead to frequent ailments some of a lower order and others of a serious nature often culminating in chronic illness, cardio vascular problems, cancers and premature death and sadly suicides.

The presentation considered some of the basic symptoms that are exhibited both psychological and physiological. It was also noted that women are often more prone to stress related problems because of the nature of their work, low-pay status in many cases and their many other roles that they fulfil. Research has also shown that high stress levels during pregnancy have a negative effect on the unborn child.

Ian outlined the considerable difficulties facing prospective personal injury claimants, and highlighted some of the leading cases, focussing on the issue of foreseeability as laid down by Lady Justice Hale’s 16 points summarised in the Hatton and others Judgement (2002). Ian emphasised that detailed records of incidents were essential and those suffering from stress-related illness associated with work, must lodge complaints, inform the employer of the problems and take grievances.

The HSENI Stress Management Standards were referenced despite their being non-statutory, and Ian confirmed that the Stress Network endorses their approach to identifying stress problems in the workplace. In the task of persuading employers to apply the standards and use of the online measurement tool, the Stress Network provides a simple audit form which if used within a branch, will enable Safety Representatives to bring relevant information to the table in Safety Committee meetings.

Ian drew attention to a publication entitled Stress At Work, by Tarani Chandola, of Manchester University – it is free to download and highlights some of the ongoing issues post the 2008-9 recession.

In conclusion, Ian highlighted some of the problems facing Safety Representatives and TU Stewards within the uncertainties of the present political and financial climate:

Continuing Public Sector Cuts

Drastic axing of Health and Safety regulations

EU wide deregulation and the possibility of the UK leaving the EU

Employers’ failure to recognise stress-related illness as a serious problem and ignoring the need for effective policies, risk assessments and constant awareness of duty of care, backed up by effective agreed and meaningful policies on mental health in the workplace

The apparent absence of appropriate training of managers in personnel management skills and risk assessments

He promoted the idea of workplaces with a ‘caring supportive culture, affording dignity for all’

Below is a list of Workshop presentations which are available to download:

Session A: Excessive Workloads

Session B: Access to Justice / Personal Injury

Session C: Management Standards for Work-Related Stress

Session D: Substance Misuse and Mental Health crisis