Health and safety at work law place a duty on employers to ensure the health as well as the safety of their employees. The principles for controlling health through risk assessment are the same as those for safety. However, the nature of health risks can make the link between work activities and employee ill health less apparent than in the case of injury from an accident.
Unlike safety risks, which can lead to immediate injury, the results of daily exposure to health risks may not become apparent for months, years and in some cases, decades. Health may be irreversibly damaged before the risk is apparent.
It is therefore essential to develop a preventive strategy to identify and control risks before anyone is exposed to them. Failure to do so can lead to workers’ disability and loss of livelihood. It can also mean financial losses for the organization through sickness absence, lost production, compensation and increased insurance premiums.
Risks to health from work activities include:
- Skin contact with irritant substances, leading to dermatitis etc.
- Inhalation of respiratory sensitizers, triggering immune responses such as asthma.
- Badly designed workstations requiring awkward body postures or repetitive movements, resulting in upper limb disorders, repetitive strain injury and other musculoskeletal conditions.
- Noise levels which are too high, causing deafness and conditions such as tinnitus.
- Too much vibration, eg from hand-held tools leading to hand-arm vibration syndrome and circulatory problems.
- Exposure to ionizing and non-ionizing radiation including ultraviolet in the sun’s rays, causing burns, sickness and skin cancer.
- Infections ranging from minor sickness to life-threatening conditions, caused by inhaling or being contaminated by micro-biological organisms.
- Stress causing mental and physical disorders.
Some illnesses or conditions such as asthma and back pain have both occupational and non-occupational causes and it may be difficult to establish a definite link with a work activity or exposure to particular agents or substances.
But, if there is information which shows that the illness or condition is prevalent among the occupational group to which the sufferers belong or among workers exposed to similar agents or substances, it is likely that their work is at least a contributory factor.
Some aspects of managing risks to health will need input from specialist or professional advisers such as technical staff or occupational health hygienists, nurses and doctors.
There is much that can be done to prevent or control risks to health by taking straightforward measures such as:
- Consulting the workforce on the design of workstations.
- Talking to suppliers of substances, plant and equipment about minimizing
- Enclosing machinery to cut down noise.
- Researching the use of less hazardous materials.
- Ensuring that employees are trained in the safe handling of all the substances and materials with which they come into contact.
To assess health risks and to make sure that control measures are working properly, you may need for example to measure the concentration of substances in air to make sure that exposures remain within relevant maximum exposure limits or occupational exposure standards.
Sometimes surveillance of workers at risk of exposure will be needed. This will enable data to be collected for the evaluation of controls and for early detection of adverse changes to health.
Health surveillance procedures available include biological monitoring for bodily uptake of substances, examination for symptoms and medical surveillance – which may entail clinical examinations and physiological or psychological measurements.
The procedure chosen should be suitable for the case concerned. Sometimes a method of surveillance is specified for a particular substance. Whenever surveillance is undertaken, a health record has to be kept for the person concerned.
Health surveillance should be supervised by a registered medical practitioner or, where appropriate, it should be done by a suitably qualified person (eg an occupational nurse).
In the case of inspections for easily detectable symptoms like chrome ulceration or early signs of dermatitis, health surveillance should be done by a suitably trained responsible person.
Although, as described, specialist help may be needed to control risks to health, employers themselves remain responsible for managing work activities in a way that will prevent employees being made ill by their work.