Ill health costs the UK rail industry around £790 million a year. It is a staggering figure which demonstrates why health and wellbeing matters as much to the finance director as it does to those at risk on the front line.
“Figures like that develop a great deal of focus on ill health,” said Jen Ablitt, deputy director of strategy and policy at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
There are plenty of statistics available that illustrate why improving the health of their workforce should be a priority for railway companies. More than £300 million a year is lost through illness-related absenteeism and the sickness absence rate is 3.9 per cent in the rail sector – more than double the 1.8 per cent rate reported across the private sector as a whole.
Illness costs railway employers between £2.5 and £5 million a year, excluding cancers, but the true cost is likely to be higher, said Jen, who joined the ORR in 2006.
Preventing serious injury is understandably at the heart of health and safety policies, but across the industry’s workforce there are five times more lost days recorded through health issues than there are through safety incidents.
For every £13 lost to sickness absence only £1 is invested in improving staff health within the rail industry, highlighting the disparity between the cost of ill health and the support currently offered by businesses.
There is also the financial and reputational cost of when things go wrong. A list of improvement notices issued by the ORR in recent years includes failures to protect staff from risks relating to silica dust, vibration and manual handling.
While one of its central functions is to enforce health and safety legislation, the ORR focuses a lot of its resources into helping to educate and support the industry. Jen explained how the ORR balances both being a friend of the industry and its teacher.
The industry is demonstrating more and more its understanding and commitment to health and safety, said Jen: “We’re looking to see when the timing is right for us to shift from a leading role to a more supportive role and, yes, I think that will happen.“
Through its quarterly occupational health updates, the ORR aims to highlight worthwhile initiatives and share best practice. The document shares the ORR’s health priorities and expectations, but it also promotes wider health initiatives, including the HSE’s ‘Go Home Healthy’ campaign, IOSH’s ‘No Time to Lose’ occupational cancer campaign and Mates in Mind – a mental health support initiative aimed at the construction industry.
“There has been a remarkable growth and awarenesss in the importance of health,” said Jen, who believes this is in part through ORR’s campaigning. “We’re here to support and educate the sector, provide guidance and come up with practical plans.”
The same issues that have prompted debate for the past few years are likely to set the agenda again in 2018. Musculoskeletal disorders and respiratory conditions remain key concerns.
The figures around hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) continue to dwarf everything else, said Jen. She feels there needs to be a rethink in how this risk is managed, moving the focus away from job rotation to look at better job design and better equipment and maintenance.
Jen believes fatigue is another issue where the whole picture is not always considered. The concern is usually focused on fatigue and the heightened risk of serious accidents, but the health implications for individuals should also be examined.
In some areas, the ORR feels the industry is making positive strides. A big effort has been made in recent years to reveal the huge financial impact mental ill health has on the UK economy. The Centre for Mental Health suggests that the figure could be as high as £35 billion every year.
Rail companies are working hard to understand and better treat mental health issues, said Jen. “The rail industry is doing a huge amount on this and we set out our expectations on mental health in 2014 around stress, so we certainly do understand the importance of it.”
She added: “There’s reasons to be positive. We have been encouraged by the amount of leadership now being shown by the industry.”
A moral argument
Although the cost of health to business can do a lot to motivate industry to improve, the personal cost for employees shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly when the impact can be life-limiting.
“There is a moral aspect to it, of course, and there’s also a link between how we treat health amongst our people and how an organisation values safety more widely,” said Jen.
She went on: “I think if you’re caring for the safety and wellbeing of your staff, it’s a much better environment to have an open dialogue about managing and motivating safety.”
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