Horizon scanning is not a term that’s in common use. It refers to the systematic study of possible threats, opportunities and developments.
In the context of safety, horizon scanning is a useful tool. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, uses it to examine future changes and trends. The purpose is to prepare for new work-related risks to safety.
This purpose has a series of different goals. The first is to improve Workplace Health and Safety. To do this, it’s necessary to identify future risks related to workplace activities.
Another goal is for the HSE to stay abreast of strategic thought within the health and safety sector. By so doing, the HSE can contribute to relevant safety policies and priorities.
The third goal for the HSE is to use horizon scanning to keep up to date with government thinking on health and safety.
The final goal is for the HSE to involve stakeholders with the horizon scanning process. In this way, people responsible for managing health and safety changes in organisations can know in advance what to expect.
There are a number of workplace areas where horizon scanning has identified future health and safety concerns. One of these is gene therapy.
Gene therapy is a form of medicine doctors hope will successfully treat genetic disease, cancer and inherited health problems. The future health and safety issues relate to the way in which doctors plan to introduce gene therapy into the human body. Research shows that such delivery systems may require the use of infectious diseases.
The HSE has therefore looked at the regulations and technology surrounding infectious diseases and gene therapy. In particular, it has considered the health and safety risks for those who work in the field.
The good news is that the HSE’s review has not identified any immediate risks attached to gene therapy. Even so, the HSE intends to monitor progress. It will do this with the help of other interested parties such as the Scientific Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification (SACGM) and the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (GTAC).
Gene therapy is a specialised area of work. Flexible Working is a general concept that applies across many UK industries. Horizon scanning, however, is just as effective at studying such concepts as it is at examining individual sectors. The HSE, for example, has used horizon scanning to report on the future direction of flexible working and the health and safety consequences.
What the HSE has found is that flexible working in the UK is likely to increase. But this doesn’t mean that safety and working conditions will remain the same.
The HSE suggests that an increase in part-time workers will lead to a rise in Workplace Injuries. This is because the injury rate of part-time workers, calculated on an hourly basis, is higher than for full-time equivalents.
A similar argument applies to temporary workers. Temporary workers are more likely to suffer accidents than full-time workers during the first four months of employment. A rise in temporary workers will therefore lead to an increase in accidents.
Furthermore, employers do not necessarily give the same level of health and safety training to temporary and part-time workers as they do to permanent or full-time staff. As a result, the more people who take temporary or part-time jobs, the higher the incidence of workplace injuries and accidents.
With this type of information from horizon scanning exercises, bodies such as the HSE can plan for the future. This future may not be safer at work; but with appropriate measures in place, it may at least remain stable and not become worse.