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Jun 16 2012

Do Safety Regulations Make a Difference?

Safety RegulationWhat difference do safety regulations make to the way we work? Really, how much impact do they have?  When considering this, one of the problems we face is how short our memories are.

The Way Things Used To Be

I recently met up with a guy I’d done my apprenticeship with – we’re both Boilermaker/Welders (steel fabrication) and we finished our apprenticeships back in 1972 (I remember because that’s the year I got married LOL). We got to talking about the characters we’d worked with and things we’d done and it struck me then how much things have changed in 40 years.

Back then, there were probably safety regulations but they didn’t rank high in our awareness and they certainly weren’t included in our training, well not specifically. Outside of trade school and the apprentice training workshops, safety was something made up on the job. There were a few rules such as wearing safety glasses and crash hats (often ignored) but mainly there was what could be called a “common sense” approach to safety. You made up your own mind about what was dangerous and how best to protect yourself and this probably explained the queues at the medical centre.

Certainly, no one referred to the safety regulations and there were no codes of practice. You’d see a safety guy (they were all guys in those days) when someone got seriously hurt or killed. Other than that, you went your own way and so long as the job got done and no one got hurt everyone was happy.

Safety Regulation Now

How different things are now. Safety regulations are integrated into all sorts of workplace training and I doubt that there’s an employee unaware of them these days. We have codes of practice, legislative guidelines, policies, procedures, specific safety training and a whole library of rules defining safe work practices. In the best workplaces, these rules are actively enforced and workers are encouraged to come forward with their own ideas about making the workplace safer.

Regulating Diesel Exhaust Fumes – An Example of Regulations at Work

The effect of safety regulations in this change was demonstrated after reading an article about the decision by the Work Health Organisation (WHO) to declare diesel exhaust fumes a carcinogen (something that causes cancer). This has long been suspected and there’s been enough research over the years to suggest this but the WHO is the first official agency to come out and state it as fact. It will have a major impact on the way diesel exhaust fumes are dealt with in and out of the workplace. But what struck me in the article was this statement from Alan Schaeffer, the Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum (an organisation representing the manufacturers of diesel engines):

the studies considered by the W.H.O. “gave more weight to studies of exposure from technology from the 1950s, when there was no regulation.”
Ultra-low-sulfur fuel was introduced in 2000 and became mandatory in 2006, he said, and about a quarter of the American truck fleet was built after that mandate was passed. The government estimates that the entire truck fleet is replaced every 12 to 15 years, he added.

What’s this guy saying here. That manufacturers of diesel engines knew (or at least suspected) that what they were making was causing health problems for hundreds if not thousands of people but they didn’t change their processes until the regulations forced them to. Is it reasonable to assume that if the regulations requiring the use of low sulphur fuels hadn’t been put in place that the manufacturers wouldn’t have changed their practices and people would have continued to be exposed to cancer causing agents with the full knowledge of the manufacturers? How bloody callous are these people?

The Impact of Safety Regulations

But, looking back at the working conditions when I started work, we were exposed to all sorts of dangerous stuff. Asbestos, welding fumes, noise, manual handling, heavy metal fumes, radiation, height work, and the list could go on. Most of these either no longer exist or they’ve been controlled to minimise the risk. What brought on this change? Probably a number of factors but safety regulations played a role. They made it illegal to expose workers to these risks without some form of risk control being place. Safety regulations established exposure limits, prohibited certain forms of high-risk work, required greater involvement of workers in making workplaces safer.

How much of this would have happened if the safety regulations hadn’t changed? Well that’s one of those “what if questions” for which there is really no answer. And it’s not just a matter of having those safety regulations in place it’s also a matter of having them enforced. The best safety regulations in the world will have little effect if no one is enforcing them and government’s attitude to workplace safety certainly changed at this time.

In the 1970’s, OSHA was formed in the US while in countries using British based legal systems there was the Robens model of safety regulation leading to the formation of the HSE. Swedish research and policing of safety regulations based on that research was instrumental in establishing exposure standards globally. West Germany, France and other European countries also increased their focus on safety regulation as did countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

A Change for the Better

The 1960’s and 70’s was an era of massive social change that touched just about every facet of life for those living in developed countries. One of those was a change in the way we viewed work  and, critically, we no longer accepted that injuries and work went hand in hand. There’s no doubt that the changes in safety regulations played a vital role in giving that “new” view of work meaning and life.

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