Occupational Health

by Anna Harrington

Possible effects of work on health

There are both positive and negative effects of work on health.

Studies have demonstrated a causal link between unemployment and mortality, with suicide/attempted suicide and cardiac effects being of significance (Worklessness and health – what do we know about the causal relationship? Evidence Review 1st edition – March 2005).

Benefits of employment

Employment contributes to reducing inequalities in areas such as health, education and personal finances. The individual and his/her family feel the effects of unemployment.


The financial aspects of work are the most obvious. Money allows varying degrees of choice and freedom. On an individual level, greater affluence does not necessarily bring about better health, but there is overriding statistical evidence which suggests that, on a collective level, living in areas of lower deprivation brings about a collective rise in ill health. Living in a less deprived area, on the other hand, requires a certain level of household finance.

In addition, the freedom and choice that financial reward brings allows people control over their lives, which keeps frustration and mental distress at bay, to a certain degree.

Quality of life

Improvements to quality of life come about through finance, but also through improvements to wellbeing. Work can give people a sense of belonging or being part of a group, thus reducing feelings of isolation.

The activities that the individual within the group undertakes can give a sense of achievement and value, of knowing that they are able to contribute towards something.

Work and the role an individual undertakes can become part of the way an individual perceives him/herself and the way society sees them. This can have a powerful influence upon self-esteem.


Work enhances not just the worker’s potential, but the potential of his/her family. Work can give the individual choice about how they want to live their lives and can be part of a plan to achieve a specific goal.

The effect of work on health is dependent upon how the workplace functions. A ‘healthy workplace’ is one which takes care of its human capital, that is the potential value of employees in an organisation.

A healthy workplace is created

  • Through controlling risks to protect employees’ health
  • Creating opportunities and conditions to allow healthy choices to be made
  • Creating positive feelings of wellbeing through attentions to management styles, recognition and reward, training and development and the work environment.

Health issues that may be caused by work

Some jobs carry greater risks than others. Below are some of the more common health issues faced by people in a variety of occupations.

Emerging workplace health risks

Sometimes, a substance/process or agent is already recognised as potentially hazardous, but its significance is for some reason increasing. This may become particularly relevant as new technology is being developed (for example, low carbon industries) and as a result of move to the globalisation of the workforce.

The level of risk may not yet have been fully realised. This may be because the risk is new. Alternatively, a risk that may be deemed to have been well controlled in the past may now be on the increase. For example, TB is currently becoming more widespread and drug resistant.

In addition

  • The necessary control measures may not be fully understood
  • There may not be a legislative framework in place that will necessarily deal with the risk or sufficient research and guidance

Why is it important to be aware of them?

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. The level of significance, though, will depend very much on what industry we work in.

Emerging risks are evolving around nanotechnology, genetically-modified organisms, mental health issues concerning much more ‘flexible’ job roles with much less job security and the use of electronic communication. 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.

Hierarchy of control

The following table is adapted from that on the HSE website.

  1. Elimination

Redesign the job or substitute a substance so that the hazard is removed or eliminated.

  1. Substitution

Replace the material or process with a less hazardous one. Care should be taken to ensure the alternative is safer than the original.

  1. Engineering controls

Use work equipment or other measures to prevent harm. For example, install or use additional machinery, such as local exhaust ventilation, to control risks from dust or fumes. Separate the hazard from operators by methods such as enclosing or guarding dangerous items of machinery/equipment. Give priority to measures which protect collectively over individual measures.

  1. Administrative controls

These are all about the procedures you need to work safely. Examples could include reducing the time the worker is exposed to the hazard (for example, by job rotation). Prohibit use of mobile phones in hazardous areas. Refer to and review risk assessments, in order to identify safer systems of work. Increase safety signage.

  1. Personal protective clothes and equipment

Only after all the previous measures have been tried and found ineffective in controlling risks to a reasonably practicable level, must personal protective equipment (PPE) be used. For example, where you cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, should one occur. If chosen, PPE should be selected and fitted by the person who uses it. Workers must be trained in the function and limitations of each item of PPE.