Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

Common questions

  1. Senior management seem to regard occupational health as a minor issue. What can I do to win their support?
  2. When can I check whether a job applicant is fit to work?
  3. Several of our employees are asking for flexible working hours – are there any health implications?
  4. So what are the characteristics of a healthy working environment?
  5. Our industry is ‘cutting edge’, so perhaps we don’t need to worry about OH problems?

 

1. Senior management seem to regard occupational health as a minor issue. What can I do to win their support?

There are many reasons for promoting and becoming engaged in the health and wellbeing of the workforce. Health is not just a matter for internal (to the organisation) concern, but also involves political and other wider issues, such as the economics of a nation. A business case needs to reflect both these internal and external drivers. The aim of building a business case is to secure senior management team commitment and financial resource for the strategic management of health and wellbeing at work. Any or all of the following issues may help you to build your business case for securing commitment to occupational health within your organisation.

  • Reduced insurance costs – due to risks being managed appropriately
  • Reduced risks of claims being taken against the organisation
  • Increased employee engagement – through their health, psychological, social needs and aspirations being met in the workplace
  • Increased employee productivity – for reasons as above

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2. When can I check whether a job applicant is fit to work?

In general, it is now unlawful to enquire about an applicant’s health and/or disability before a job offer is made. This includes questions relating to sickness absence. Therefore occupational health will not normally screen individuals before an offer of employment has been made. The purpose of screening, when permissible, would be to enable the individual to do the job to the best of his or her ability, perhaps through the employer making reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

Employees in jobs that are safety critical, such as pilots, rail workers, seafarers, food handlers and oil and gas workers have standards of fitness which individuals have to achieve and maintain. The purpose is to prevent a major accident or occurrence due to ill health in an employee.

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3. Several of our employees are asking for flexible working hours – are there any health implications?

Flexible working patterns offer benefits to both employers and employees. Employers might experience increased productivity and employment, whereas workers may experience greater control and flexibility and, in some cases, reduced stress. However, the health implications of the increased adoption of flexible work and employment patterns are wide ranging:

  • Precarious forms of employment may generate feelings of job insecurity and stress, as a result of isolation or conflicting demands arising from the blurred distinction between work and home life; the higher levels of job insecurity typically experienced by temporary workers can result in impaired well-being, and less desirable attitudes and behaviours towards work
  • Temporary workers are likely to be at increased risk of injury, as the risk of workplace injury is higher during the first four months within a new job
  • Although part-time workers spend less time at work, their injury rate per hour worked is higher than those working full-time.

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4. So what are the characteristics of a healthy working environment?

Research by the Commission for the Built Environment (CABE) found that 24 per cent of employee work satisfaction relates to comfort, air quality, temperature, noise, lighting and the office layout. CABE suggests the following six points when considering the creation of a healthy environment:

  • Ease of movement and accessibility
  • Character, quality and continuity – workplaces that positively interact with the surrounding areas
  • Diversity – having workplaces as part of a mixed use development
  • Sustainability – minimising the consumption of energy
  • Adaptable – able to accommodate changes to requirements
  • Management – ease in the maintenance requirements.

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5. Our industry is ‘cutting edge’, so perhaps we don’t need to worry about OH problems?

New technologies may bring new hazards for which there is not yet legislation, but there is a need to identify and manage those risks which may become significant for the organisation, particularly in the current goal-setting legislative system, in which employers are expected to manage their own risks.

Here are some of the health issues which the HSE are actively looking at through their horizon scanning programme:

  • Exposure to substances through nanotechnology
  • Implications of using ‘virtual working environments’, such as second life
  • Increased flexible working patterns.

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