Are we thinking big enough on workplace health and safety?


In the week of the UN’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work, 2MPY Partner, Clare B Marshall, considers whether we are thinking big enough.

Throughout the world there are tightly controlled legal (and, if not, moral) obligations to provide healthy and safe working environments, safe systems of work, relevant information to the right people at the right time and other control measures. In more recent years, health and wellbeing have come more into focus quashing the historic mindset of health and safety being all about hard hats and steel capped boots.

To differing degrees, organisations globally have embraced technology in seeking to develop engaging health and safety tools. Despite differing legal requirements, from a pragmatic and efficiency perspective alone, it clearly makes sense to use common systems and to share best practice across projects, organisations and countries, wherever possible.

But, in a week where the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (28 April 2022) is recognised around the world, are rules and regulations, systems and tools, enough to ensure health and safety?

World health and safety should be all-encompassing, therefore shouldn’t we also be talking about the health, safety and vitality of our planet – of the world’s health, not just of its people. Without the world’s health, the place we call home, no end of rules and regulations, systems and tools will save us from existential catastrophe.

It is worth reflecting on the words of former Terminator and California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when interviewed by the Guardian newspaper at COP21 many years ago in Paris, when he said: “It drives me crazy when people talk about 30 years from now, rising sea levels and so on. What about right now? Thousands of people are dying from pollution.”

Having successfully driven down pollution levels whilst growing California’s economy during his governorship, Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “There are people stuck in cancer wards now, tubes sticking out of them – seven million people die a year because of pollution.” He was passionate about the importance of the ‘here and now’, strongly believing that talk of the future, whilst important, was not where real effort should be made. The Terminator himself made a plea for better communication about the impacts of global warming and its immediate dangers to the world.

A need to communicate, in straightforward terms, the here and now and what we as a collective can do about it. A theme taken forward by Schwarzenegger more recently in his message to Russian citizens with an impassioned call for peace . . . And for world health and safety too.

But is communication and individual action enough to overcome the climate crisis and secure the world’s health? Or does communicating tangible threats, impacts and actions (to be taken by all) need to be combined with a more systematic approach?

According to Sir Partha Dasgupta (economist and author of The Economics of Biodiversity) in his review for the UK Treasury last year, critical steps to solving the climate crisis include economics. That is, by changing how we measure – economically – the success of steps taken in an attempt to reduce global warming and human development more broadly.

Dasgupta argues that a different approach to measuring economic output is crucial, advocating the measurement of natural assets, not just financial markers. He argues that a focus on GDP results in “unsustainable economic growth and development” and would, instead, like to see NDP being measured. A single net domestic product would balance up growth generation (on the one hand) with resultant impacts on nature (on the other).

Dasgupta says: “Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better.” Wise and emotive words and a sentiment that many of the younger generation truly understand as evidenced so captivatingly in the short animation Delphine. Created by Aardman from a story written by a competition winner from the UK’s Blue Peter programme, it’s a colourful, accessible and haunting reminder of the impacts of climate change. Told from a child’s point of view, it’s a powerful message to all generations of the need to make changes now to help mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Back to Dasgupta: “Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them. It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with nature.”

And only through an inclusive measure can “we judge whether the path of economic development we choose to follow is sustainable . . . The qualifier ‘inclusive’ says that wealth includes nature as an asset.”

Interestingly, he would also like to see nature sitting alongside the three Rs in the school curriculum. Communication again, from the earliest age.
So, can we secure world health by homing in on and combining these two visions, with other laudable initiatives such as the UN’s SDGs and COP26 commitments?

Firstly, by communicating the ‘now’ and together taking steps to mitigate at all levels (and ages) in society, then measuring NDP and the impact of human development on nature, to determine its sustainability – or otherwise.

By combining these approaches – and bringing tangible solutions to the fore for everyone to understand and implement – we can surely accelerate the global effort to achieving climate goals, in good time. And, ultimately, to ensuring world health.

Clare B Marshall is a partner at the business consultancy 2MPy.