Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

An occupational health needs assessment

An occupational health needs assessment should encompass

  • An analysis of each job, the work processes and their associated potential hazards (see also Risk Management)
  • The distinction between hazard and risk (see below)
  • The demands of the job – physical and psychological (this is about gathering data to develop an understanding of the physical and psychological demands of jobs; it can be linked to the risk assessment, in particular moving and handling and stress risk assessments)
  • Assessing how an individual’s health may affect the work
  • Assessing how the work may affect the employee’s health – potential adverse effects on an existing health condition
  • Identifying when specific fitness standards are required and why
  • Consideration of special cases – age, pregnancy, disability.

The purpose of conducting a health needs assessment is to ascertain the health needs of a population with the purpose of identifying the type and level of resource and service required to meet those needs. The process of conducting the health needs assessment will raise issues, highlight problem areas and engage employees and management. The health needs assessment should reflect the business plan objectives.

Basic requirements

In order to carry out the assessment you will need to

  • Meet key personnel and understand the organisational structure, objectives and culture
  • Obtain the organisational chart
  • Meet with senior management, human resources, health and safety, and union or other staff reps
  • Conduct an assessment of the organisational culture
  • Obtain demographics which describe the workforce from a health and wellbeing perspective, possibly also identifying any vulnerable workers – age, job categories, sex
  • Understand the sickness absence rates and policy – such as the number of employees on long-term sick, procedures for managing sickness absence, ill-health retirement and work-related illness and injuries
  • Understand current pre-employment procedures – what do they currently do to screen employees during the recruitment process?
  • Gain some understanding of work processes, job roles and workplace culture – obtain job descriptions, walk around, hold toolbox talks (short presentations on particular health aspects), understand communication processes, note the equipment used, including personal protective equipment, consider hazards and risks
  • Obtain any risk assessments, in particular those relating to COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) and jobs requiring specific fitness standards
  • Develop an opinion on the level of legislative compliance – risk assessments, hazard spotting during the walk-round visits, discussions with key personnel, health surveillance records, recruitment policies, sickness absence policies
  • Understand organisational expectations – study the strategic business plan and hold discussions with senior management.

Five steps

The Health Development Agency suggests the following five steps in a health needs assessment.

  • Step 1

Getting started – identify the population, define what you want to achieve and who needs to be involved, secure resource and understand the risks.

  • Step 2

Identify health priorities; understand the population – who are they? This should identify special cases, such as young or older workers, disabled or pregnant ones. Consider perceptions – what do employees and managers think is needed. Consider the health conditions already present in the population, resulting from sedentary lifestyles, smoking or poor access to healthy food.

  • Step 3

Assess a health priority for action – use risk analysis to identify areas requiring urgent action; frequency and severity of consequences of ill health need to be considered, in addition to the legislative requirements and affects on performance.

  • Step 4

Action planning for change – reflect back to the aims and purpose; decide what interventions will achieve those aims; develop an action plan which sets out the priorities and

  • Step 5

Move on/project review.

Hazard and risk

Hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm. This definition makes no distinction between physical and psychological harm. When assessing the potential of harm, both these elements need to be considered. Additionally, the definition makes no reference to the characteristics or circumstances of the individuals who may be affected. Special consideration therefore needs to be given to individuals who have characteristics which may amplify the risk, such as a disability, youth or age, pregnancy or medication.

Risk is the likelihood that a hazard will actually cause harm, with a judgement on the effect of the harm. Risk is a measure of two things – the likelihood and the effect. Judgements are made by gathering evidence from a variety of sources, such as official notifications, professional knowledge and experience.

When analysing jobs and roles, the hazards need to be identified first, and then a measurement of risk should be attached to the hazard.

After conducting a risk assessment, it may be necessary to implement fitness standards as a risk control measure. These may be regulated by an authority, such as the Office for Rail Regulation, or be particular to the organisation.

Main factors influencing health and performance

Certain hazards and risks will preclude individuals from undertaking a particular task, due to the risk of causing a deterioration in heath. The role of health surveillance and screenings becomes an important consideration in these circumstances.

Special cases

Young workers – below the age of 18 (although some may be locally classed as young up to the age of 21), women who are pregnant or have recently given birth and anyone classed as disabled will require specific risk assessment and hazard control.