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Healthy Workplaces for People of All Ages

Article published in ETBI Magazine, Issue 1, 2017.

On 26th October 2016, as part of European Safety Week, IPB Insurance, in partnership with Education and Training Boards Ireland and the Local Government Management Agency, delivered a conference on the theme of Healthy Workplaces for People of all Ages.

As Europe’s workforce is ageing, with the number of older workers making up a growing proportion of the total workforce, and as the official retirement age is increasing, many workers are likely to face longer working lives and more exposure to work hazards, as well as having to cope with a changing world of work. The conference emphasised that in order to prevent higher incidences of ill health, efforts have to be made to ensure safe and healthy working conditions throughout the whole working life. Topics such as workplace wellbeing and behavioural safety were discussed, with sports commentator Brent Pope delivering the keynote speech on managing mental health.

In his opening address, Frank Curran, Chief Executive of Leitrim County Council, talked about the changing employment landscape over the last ten years, with a decrease in the number of employees in all sectors, shifts in the competency base and escalation in the demand for services. The number of Local Authorities and Education and Training Boards (ETBs) have been reduced to 31 and 16 respectively and these organisations are now larger and far more complex.

With all these changes come risk which, when managed appropriately, can create opportunities and can result in added value for the Local Authority and for the ETBs. Frank referred to the higher quality of services delivered today with fewer resources, which demonstrates the professionalism of those who plan and deliver services. This is evidenced by the number of people accessing and availing of services by agencies meeting, and in some cases, exceeding the key performance indicators set by funding bodies and by the ability to show through evidence bases, the quality of the service and the demonstration of good governance to Audit Committees and relevant Government Departments.

Frank spoke about recent changes in legislation such as the Local Government Reform Act, 2014, the Education and Training Boards Act, 2013 and the Education and Training Act, 2013 as well as the updating of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work compliance universe, and the publication of the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies (September 2016) and a new Code of Practice for the Governance of ETBs (March 2015), which clearly place the management of risk and the necessity of creating a healthy workplace on the management agenda. In closing, Frank highlighted the importance of collaborative working across public bodies such as the Local Authorities and the ETBs, and ensuring that all opportunities are exploited so as to add value at every level.

A very stimulating presentation was provided by Sheila O’Malley, a professional trainer and wellbeing expert, who discussed Building Resilience, with emphasis on the value of an individual managing his/ her own wellbeing and developing emotional resilience so that they have the correct reserves and competency to manage all situations that arise in both their personal and work life. The engagement from the delegates was excellent, with a lot learned during the discussion.

Alan Shortt, as Chairperson of the conference, interviewed Brent Pope about his experience of depression, the methods that he uses to recognise depression, and the importance of having the tools and techniques to manage depression when it arises. He emphasised that medication is not always the answer, but that much of the management tools were present within the individual. Brent did commend the many healthcare professionals and charitable organisations that support people who do experience depression and emphasised the importance of accessing such services if and when the need arises.

After the interview with Brent Pope, Gavin Lonergan, Head of Communications and Customer Relations with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Chairman of the National Focal Point, presented on the conference theme of Healthy Workplaces for People of all Ages. Gavin described the Focal Point Pan-European campaign of Healthy Workplaces for People of all Ages which is coordinated by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA). The Focal Point in Ireland is facilitated by the HSA and supported by a network of partners from all European Union countries.

Gavin focused on the changing age profile from 2010 – 2060. He explained that by 2030, workers aged 55-64 are expected to make up at least 30% of the total workforce in many countries, which means that a higher proportion of older workers will have chronic health problems and will therefore have specific support needs. Policy makers and employers will need to focus on disability prevention, rehabilitation and return-to-work policies as there will be increased concerns about employee productivity and absenteeism. They will also need to be aware of and manage the possible risk of age discrimination.

To ensure that an organisation is prepared for the changes that lie ahead, it is recommended that a risk assessment should initially be undertaken with consideration given to the following key points:
1. Carry out or review risk assessments regularly
2. Consider the tasks involved in specific jobs
3. Corrective measures should be based on capabilities and objective risks
4. Provide regular health checks to identify problems.

For older workers, Gavin advised that the following hazards, among others, require special consideration: ergonomic hazards, such as repetitive movements, manual handling, awkward, uncomfortable postures, static postures; shift work; hot, cold or noisy work environments, vibration; and working at height. The role of policy makers should be geared towards the provision of tools for managing occupational safety and health in the context of an ageing workforce and the facilitation of information exchange and good practice.

In the afternoon Annette Tierney, Theatre at Work, facilitated a workshop on Behavioural Safety in which a professional theatre group performed a very real and engaging performance, ‘Overloaded’, which showed how easily a serious incident can happen and how devastating the consequences are when they do occur. In this performance a worker was fatally injured and the circumstances leading up to the event were acted out to show all the contributing factors. The audience concluded that a number of elements led to the situation arising, including human ego; human vulnerability as they fail to prevent their personal life interfering with their work life; the dangers of distractions such as mobile phones; the disregard by an employee to the instructions of management and the failure by the manager to ensure that all procedures and policies were strictly complied with because of the nature of their relationship with the employee. The play was thought- provoking and generated great discussion, highlighting real issues, considerations and learnings that the delegates were able to take with them and apply in their own work places.

John Kearney, Chief Executive of Cavan & Monaghan ETB delivered the closing remarks. He referred to the changing education curriculum at Junior Certificate level and the importance now placed on wellbeing for all, which includes staff, students and contractors, and how students can take this learning with them through life. He was confident that, from the subjects presented at the conference, from the attention given by all delegates to the topics discussed, and the level of engagement by delegates during the panel discussions, everyone would be able to take away at least one key action to make their own working life better, and also that of their colleagues, because it is by working in a team, that we all support each other, and learn together, and have better quality lives.