In addition to statutory health and safety procedures all employers must put in place, ‘occupational health’ focuses on the relationship between health and work. It can vary from workplace to workplace. For example, a chemical manufacturer’s employees will be exposed to some different health related issues than, say, the employees of a call centre so occupational health practitioners need to take these different aspects into consideration.
For some people, a health issue will affect their ability to do the type of work they want to do whilst in other cases, the work itself may have the potential to affect people’s health. For an occupational health specialist, the ‘patient’ may be a single employee, a group or even the entire workforce, depending on the specific issue.
The Purpose of Occupational Health in The Workplace
Occupational health aims to ensure that people can be as effective as possible in their work and that their health is protected. It can sometimes get overlooked as more emphasis tends to be placed on safety issues but a good occupational health scheme can have a major effect in Reducing Sickness Absence.
The main responsibilities of an occupational health provider is to identify what can cause or contribute to Ill Health in the Workplace, to determine the action required to minimise being made ill from work, based on a well informed assessment of the risks and introducing suitable control measures to prevent ill health wherever possible.
They are also responsible for the particular health needs of individual workers such as those with disabilities, and should also be involved in the process of evaluating work equipment to see that it is suitable for its purpose. For example, ensuring that VDUs/computers and workstations are set up correctly and that employees are trained in how to use them ‘healthily’ to prevent things such as back pain which could lead on to Musculoskeletal Disorders or eyesight problems.
Occupational health may also involve screening job applicants to ensure that their health is of a satisfactory standard to carry out a particular job function and they can also provide support and advice to those who may already be off sick from work and looking to return. For example, an employee may be off sick due to a fall. The occupational health specialist will often liaise with a local hospital’s physiotherapy unit to assess whether the employee is fit enough to embark upon a course of physiotherapy to enable them to return to work more quickly or if more rest and recuperation is required first.
Whilst it is not compulsory to employ someone in the role of an Occupational Health specialist, their role is so entwined with a company’s overall mandatory health and safety possible that it would be impossible to adopt a correct health and safety procedure without taking into consideration some of the aspects mentioned above. There is an emphasis on prevention being better than cure and more of a focus on how to maintain a healthy workforce. When people are off work sick, it is the duty of the Occupational Health specialist to ascertain why they were off sick and to suggest ways in which it can be prevented happening again for the same reason.
They also have a role to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle to employees. Personal health checks – a sort of human M.O.T. – could be offered every year or two, talks can be given or posters put up. All ideas being to promote good health and to minimise illnesses from occurring, both physical and psychological, due to the nature of the work being undertaken or as a result of the working environment itself.