Skip to content

Beware moving boundaries!

Date posted
24 May 2024
Duncan Spencer CFIOSH
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

Duncan Spencer, our Head of Advice and Practice, blogs about the changing demands of the occupational safety and health (OSH) profession.

If occupational safety and health is be recognised as a distinct profession, some believe we must jealously guard our topic area.

In recent years, we have seen people professionals, risk managers, corporate and social responsibility practitioners all being active in the field of health and safety, particularly in larger organisations.

But does it matter? Should we be thinking of natural overlaps rather than distinctive borders? These are important questions that go to the very heart of the profession’s identity and are repeatedly asked questions as the world around us changes.


When new business challenges arise, employers have three options: recruit, pay for consultancy, or require one of their existing staff to take on additional responsibility.

It is why many OSH professionals often find their role descriptions extended to include business risk, quality, environment, security, sustainability and so on. Indeed, the safety profession itself has evolved. Here are three quick examples to illustrate this.

  1. 2024 is the 50th anniversary of the Health & Safety at Work Act, and there will be reflection about its content and present application. Back in 1974, the United Kingdom economy was very different: it was led by the mining and oil extraction and manufacturing sectors, industries where fatalities and serious physical injury were more prominent. By contrast, the UK economy is led by the service sector with the upshot that the Act is now predominantly applied to work and circumstances beyond what its originators envisaged. Our profession has had to adapt to this different application.

  2. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, organisations were left with the challenge of bringing employees and customers back into the workplace safely. Notwithstanding that the pandemic was first and foremost a public health matter, we can be justifiably proud of our profession’s considerable influence in successfully achieving this aim. Even now, OSH professionals still work to support the rehabilitation of those suffering with long COVID. When it comes to pandemics, we have arguably surpassed the natural borders of our profession into the realm of public health.

  3. Finally, in recent years there has been much media discussion about wellbeing – particularly mental health. When I started in the profession more than 30 years ago, wellbeing was covered by specialist occupational health nurses or doctors, not the safety professional. While our profession was responsible for identifying occupational health hazards and their control, we were not tasked with health monitoring, supporting rehabilitation, nor caring for the wider wellbeing of employees. Now some of us are.

Team work

Perhaps protecting a definitive boundary around the profession is not necessary. Modern business problems are usually complex, ambiguous, and beset by uncertainty.

It has never been more important for organisations to assemble project teams with representatives across disciplines to solve them.

In today’s world, then, it may be counterproductive to argue whether boundaries have been crossed.

While continuing to guard the core skills and knowledge of our profession, perhaps we should be less worried about where our profession stops, and another begins.

While continuing to guard the core skills and knowledge of our profession, perhaps we should be less worried about where our profession stops, and another begins.

Job role

Collaborative working means we need to be comfortable with sharing boundaries and be willing to work in ‘no man’s land’.

After all, not only is this where we will find the more intellectual and interesting challenges, it also provides a forum for us to demonstrate the added value we bring to our employers.

Last updated: 03 June 2024

Duncan Spencer CFIOSH

Job role
Head of Advice and Practice


  • Economy
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Procedures and reporting
  • Strategy and influence
  • Protecting outdoor workers
  • Why we need to turn down the volume
  • Strategy for success