The business case for occupational hygiene interventions is strong and convincing. So why are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK still made ill by their work each year?
Mary Cameron, occupational hygiene team leader, SOCOTEC, discusses the potential reasons behind poorly implemented occupational health strategies and how companies should be looking to overcome them in a bid for a healthy workforce and improved company performance.
Ill-health caused by the workplace is a complex problem with no simple answer but the roots to this problem lie in: misspent money, poor workplace culture, lacking awareness, and inadequate control measures. Improvements to these issues can lead to fewer work-related illnesses through improved awareness of the consequences for workplace health negligence, a positive change to workplace culture, foresight spending by business managers and a control measure maintenance regime
Not all companies have the understanding on how to invest in effective yet cost efficient exposure control measures or the foresight in this planning. Not all workers or companies are aware of the adverse health effects upon expose. Not all workplaces have a positive occupational health culture. And beyond these factors, sometimes even the best control measures can fail leading to exposure and subsequent ill-health. Occupational health interventions also require a strict enforcement policy to be effective, which can be difficult to achieve.
Protecting workers’ health isn’t just about doing what’s morally obliged or what’s legally required; it makes sense for the business. Benefits of properly invested occupational health programmes include a productive, resilient, stable, experienced and healthy workforce. Plus, early planning and effective control design can reduce or even eliminate health hazards.
Understandably, though, it can be a difficult call for company owners to decide how best to utilise their funds and, unfortunately, all too often occupational health can be neglected with money is underspent or inappropriately spent towards this.
Effective controls, however, do not necessarily mean expensive controls. Occupational hygienists are able to advise companies on the most adequate, suitable and cost-effective control measures, with the choice of control measures proportionate to the risks posed by the work. This can include hazard elimination to avoid the need for personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard containment to reduce the cost of waste disposal and environmental control, or substitution to a less hazardous material which reduces worker exposure, ill-health and subsequent costs of this.
Poor Workplace Culture
Workplace culture is an important element which can determine whether or not workers are willing to follow the site’s occupational health procedures. Poor mentality towards occupational health can lead to behavioural deviation, with some workplace health interventions perceived as a burden and unnecessary - especially when health effects are not seen upfront.
Changing this behaviour is a very difficult, long-term and extensive exercise yet extremely important to achieving workplace health. Often, providing workers with the necessary skills and equipment to undertake their task in a way which avoids exposure can also encourage behaviours that minimise exposure to health hazards.
The employer should provide incentives for the worker to conform to healthy working practices, demonstrate the positive consequences of healthy behaviour and negative consequences of non-compliant behaviour. Through collaboration and a shared responsibility for workplace health, both employees and the employer can create a positive workplace health mentality with increased health hazard awareness.
Awareness is another key factor in workplace ill-health prevention. You can’t control something that you don’t understand. Companies must understand the health risks of the hazards present (chemical, physical, biological, psychological) and why exposure prevention is important.
The UK is one of the world-leading front runners when it comes to worker health protection legislation and initiatives, including the Health and Safety Executive’s ‘Helping Great Britain Work Well’ and ‘Go Home Healthy’ campaigns. Intended to promote healthy working practices and a broader ownership of health and safety, these campaigns can aid companies in making the best choices through understanding workplace hazards and providing solutions for workers’ health protection.
Some companies may show resistance to contact HSE regulators for occupational health advice or assistance due to concerns of being targeted for inspections on a broader basis but these awareness campaigns (which are complementary to the overlying regulations) aim to bridge this gap and allow the development of understanding, managing and controlling health risks.
Inadequate Control Measures
Even if the control measures implemented are suitable and proportionate to the health risks, a good control becomes a bad control if it no long performs as intended due to poor maintenance, repair or application issues.
Deteriorating local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems and PPE in dirty conditions are some examples of this. Other common inadequate control problems include poor captor hood positioning due to lack of operative training, secondary exposure risks due to poor housekeeping, uncomfortable gloves from overheating or RPE which is not face fit tested.
Control measure maintenance, examination and testing programmed are crucial to ensure continued adequate control – but a poor understanding of what adequate control is can also lead to failings in workplace health protection.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations state three points which determine ‘adequate control’.
Exposure to the hazardous substance should not exceed the workplace exposure limit (WEL) and exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic or sensitising substances must be reduced to ‘as low a level as is reasonably practicable’.
Also, the principles of good practice for the control of exposure to hazardous substances must be met (COSHH Schedule 2A). Although WEL compliance is required, the WELs are not a defined line between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ and emphasis should be heightened on preventing exposure.
The company should undertake occupational exposure monitoring (should the risk assessment deem this necessary) but focus on assessing and improving upon their exposure prevention strategy. If a personal exposure monitoring result is below a WEL, it does not necessarily mean that no further actions need be taken; this number is an indication only and good practice for control is paramount.
Shifting Focus onto Health
We have seen a cultural shift in workplace safety awareness. Workplace accidents and fatalities have decreased significantly and safety management is widely accepted. This may be due to the delay of seeing the effects to health, as well as the comparative ease of safety management but we need to treat health like we treat safety.
Although occupational ill-health is becoming widely recognised by industry, there are still nearly one hundred times more deaths caused by occupational disease than by accidents in the UK every year. Companies who apply good occupational hygiene practices and implement adequate exposure prevention measures will reap the benefits of a healthy workforce and improved company performance.
If you want to find out more about occupational hygiene, get in touch with us below or call 0845 603 2112.