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How far can OSH go to save the world?

Date posted
07 May 2024
Tonie Davey
Estimated reading time
4 minute read

Network Rail Chair Andrew Haines told The Guardian, last month: “We can never completely weatherproof our railway but we can be better prepared and mitigate the worst that Mother Nature throws at us… to keep passengers and services safe and moving.” This got IOSH Railway Group Chair Tonie Davey thinking about the occupational safety and health (OSH) profession and the extent of its duty to help industry and business deal with the climate crisis and other issues of sustainability – not just in the rail sector but across the board.

To many, 20 years ago, the concept of ‘sustainability’ was viewed only in relation to environmental impact. In recent years, however, our perception of sustainability has expanded to include social and governance, as well as environmental elements. So, ESG, as it came to be known, covers the health and safety, workforce labour, renewable energy, diversity and inclusion, and social responsibilities that come under a broader definition of sustainability.

The events at Carmont, nearly four years ago, presented a tragic example of just how inter-connected safety and sustainability really are. On Wednesday 12 August 2020, a passenger train derailed near Carmont, Aberdeenshire, as a result of hitting debris from a steeply sloping drainage trench. This resulted in the tragic loss of train driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie and passenger Christopher Stuchbury. Climate change, and the associated increased risk of extreme rainfall events, calls on industries such as the railway industry and its safety professionals to pay close attention to the changes going on in the world around us.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include “Good health and wellbeing” (Goal 3), alongside “Industry, innovation and infrastructure” (Goal 9) and “Climate Action” (Goal 13 ). Not one of these goals is more important than any other. They are all required if we’re to achieve a globally co-ordinated, sustainable future.

The five-year IOSH strategy, Activate 2028, outlines IOSH’s commitment, as the voice of the OSH profession, to take the actions required to achieve a safe and sustainable work environment and to, “focus on how the environmental and sustainability agenda impacts the working lives of people”.

In January 2024, there was an update to many ISO standards relating to management systems, including ISO 45001:2018 - Occupational health and safety management systems - requirements with guidance for use. This was to reflect growing concerns around climate change. Clause 4.1 was updated to now state: “The organisation shall determine whether climate change is a relevant issue”. Clause 4.2 now also states: “Note: Relevant interested parties can have requirements related to climate change”.

Climate change impact

To me this is a strong and positive move towards ensuring our management systems standards encourage businesses to think seriously about how their products and services can directly or indirectly impact climate change. I do, however, wonder if many organisations also consider how climate change has an impact on their products or services and how they should react to this.

Andrew Haines explained to The Guardian how Network Rail will be investing £2.8 billion on:

  • making embankments more resilient
  • recruiting 400 extra drainage engineers
  • training staff to better interpret weather forecasts
  • installing CCTV at sites with a higher risk of flooding.

It was also fascinating to see the European Court recently ruled that human rights had been violated by climate inaction. In the first ever climate case victory in the European Court of Human Rights, it was ruled that Switzerland’s efforts to meet its emission reduction targets had been woefully inadequate. It’s a ruling that could influence the law in countries across Europe, including the UK.

All of this has really made me think about how I can contribute, not only as an individual but also as a safety professional. When I consider the IOSH competency framework and Blueprint, I see it contains continuing professional development (CPD) and learning resources tailored to safety professionals to support us in developing greater knowledge and skills relating to sustainability topics.

One of the six sections on the IOSH personal development plan is sustainability, and IOSH has provided online access to CPD resources, such as understanding the importance of community impact or ethical business practices. The plan states that, “OSH professionals must be able to influence, support and implement strategies and plans that will be beneficial to the organisation, employees and the environment. They have a role to play in harnessing business to improve society.”

Do you agree with this?

Should we, as OSH professionals, be playing a lead support role in ensuring businesses operate in a way that’s best for society as a whole? Let us know your views by emailing us, or joining the debate on LinkedIn.

Last updated: 14 May 2024

Tonie Davey

Job role
Chair, Railway Group


  • Environment and climate


  • railway
  • The impacts of climate change on OSH
  • Protecting workers from climate change
  • Bold steps needed on worker safety in climate crisis