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Five key challenges to workplace safety in 2023

Author : David Head, Draeger Safety UK

24 October 2023

Businesses and employees across the UK are facing a raft of challenges in 2023, from the increasing impact of the cost of living crisis facing individuals and families, to an ever-growing pressure on businesses to focus on environmental and sustainability issues as the UK moves towards its Net Zero goals.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

In its 2023 annual Safety at Work Report, international safety technology firm Drager identified five key current issues which risk challenging health and safety across UK workplaces in 2023. Here we explore what these are, and why they are proving problematic.

1. Sustainability pressures

Sustainability is one of the key issues seen to be competing with safety as a business priority in 2023, alongside reducing costs and productivity. Significantly, three quarters (75%) of those included in the study reported that sustainability is more important to their organisation than it was two years ago.

However, looking at the overall impact of sustainability and environmental improvements on workplace safety, the majority (62%) believe that the two can comfortably co-exist (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Impact on safety of organisations focusing on sustainability

There is some variation between industries – more than three quarters (76%) of those operating in the oil and gas/renewables sector agree that sustainability and safety can comfortably co-exist, with only 6% believing this not to be the case. Conversely, in the transport and logistics industry just over half (51%) believe that sustainability and safety can co-exist (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Furthermore, when it comes to choosing an employer, a company’s safety record plays a greater role than sustainability in an employee’s decision to accept a job – 84% of respondents stated that safety is an important consideration, compared with 70% who cite sustainability.

Less positive is the view that when it comes to safety in new / emerging sectors such as renewable and sustainable energy, more than half (57%) feel that the recent stuttering of the energy transition may slow down health and safety momentum in their sector – rising to 72% in the oil and gas/renewables sector.

2. Mental health of workers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the key aspects of the 2023 report focuses on how cost-of-living pressures are impacting the mental health of workers. Respondents report these pressures affecting sleep, focus, anxiety levels and productivity, and there is little doubt that such factors have the potential to cross from the mental to the physical in terms of risking a negative impact on safety at work through performance impairment.

When asked to what extent cost of living pressures and financial difficulties are affecting mental health and wellbeing, just over half (51%) of respondents reported that the impact of poorer mental health affects their sleep so that they are sometimes more tired at work; while 45% report that it makes them less able to concentrate and 42% say that they are less productive.

Figure 3 - Extent to which cost of living pressures and financial difficulties are affecting mental health and wellbeing

When questioned about how this impacts safety at work, 63% of all respondents think an increase in anxiety and depression in the workplace may have a negative impact on safety at work – this was higher in those with anxiety and depression (72%), in under 35s (68%) and among managers (67%) – while less pronounced in utilities sector (56%).

3. Financial pressures on businesses leading to ‘cutting corners’

Another area of concern identified in the research is that financial pressures are in some cases compromising safety in businesses through attempts to cut costs (and corners) with reports of outdated equipment not being replaced, delays to servicing and testing of safety equipment and less investment in safety training as well as energy cost-cutting measures.

Reports of old or outdated safety equipment not being replaced was consistent across all industries, while delays to vital servicing, maintenance and testing of safety equipment was highest in the oil and gas/renewables sector where more than half (52%) claimed this is happening, compared with just over a third (34%) in the utility sector.

Overall, an alarming 43% of respondents expressed concern that their employer may be cutting corners with regards to safety to keep costs down.

Given that the research clearly showed that investing in high quality safety equipment makes people feel safer (68%), more likely to trust the employer (55%), feel more valued (41%) and more likely to stay with an organisation (38%), as well as the obvious risks of doing so, there may also be longer term implications for businesses taking this approach in terms of staff morale and staff retention and attraction (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

4. Artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence and immersive technologies offer real potential to improve safety in the workplace, with more than half of the total number of respondents (52%) saying that they feel safer when smart digital technology is employed. This rises to 56% in the utility sector.

A further 46% believe there are fewer accidents as a result of such technology being used, and 45% state that the increased availability of safety data improves safety decisions. These responses were fairly consistent across all sectors, although slightly higher in the oil and gas/renewable sector.

However, when asked if they feel safer in an environment monitored by smart technology and connected devices or by a person, there is strong support for having both: more than four in five (81%) agree that safety at work is best achieved through a balance of monitoring by smart technology/connected devices and by human supervisors.

Figure 5 - Benefits of smart digital technology in the workplace

5. Skills shortages and lack of experience in a younger workforce

Skills shortages, budgetary constraints and a younger workforce with different levels of knowledge and training are some of the key challenges identified in the research when considering the main current issues within health and safety in 2023.

Skills shortages are seen as most critical (81%), just ahead of general budgetary constraints (78%). The loss of many older, more experienced workers who have a high level of safety knowledge was also identified as a key issue and therefore training a younger workforce with different experience and expectation is a further challenge which needs to be addressed (77%).

These are concerns which are universal across all the industries included in the research and which businesses should take heed of, and address as a matter of urgency (see Figures 6 and 7).

Figure 6

Figure 7

The challenges identified in the research pose important considerations for those involved in health and safety going forward and it will be interesting to observe how they are tackled, particularly in the midst of a cost of living crisis. However, to disregard them would create more problems in the future and result in significant increased risk of a major safety incident for those operating in the most hazardous environments.

About the author:

David Head is Head of Safety Marketing at international safety technology leader Draeger Safety UK and has spent over 16 years in the safety sector. He is responsible for the company’s wide range of safety equipment and training, from portable breathing apparatus and gas detection systems to drug and alcohol testing. He also sits on the company’s Commercial Leadership Team.

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