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Occupational health and hygiene: information for employers

02 September 2014

This article identifies some of the occupational health risks and how to reduce and control exposure in the workplace.

Introduction

Many employers concentrate their efforts on workplace safety in order to reduce accidents, yet each year many more people suffer ill health as a result of their work activities.

Some work related ill health will not immediately cause death or long term illness, due to their latency periods, an example being Mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos, which can be undetected for over 20 years. Other conditions can involve years of pain, suffering and restricted working activities for those affected, examples being work related asthma, hearing loss and chronic lower back pain.

Responsible employers can improve productivity and reputation, reduce costs and protect employees by identifying and managing work activities which expose the workforce to risks to their continual health and welfare.

Occupational health risk assessment

To complete an occupational health risk assessment employers should:

  • identify the occupational health risks
  • identify the potential for exposure to the hazard
  • identify the consequences of exposure to the hazard
  • identify and implement the appropriate controls.

Common occupational risks to health from work activities include:

  • occupational cancer accounts due to exposure to cancer causing agents in the workplace e.g. asbestos, diesel engine exhaust emissions, welding, painting and respirable crystalline silica (brick, concrete dust)
  • occupational asthma and rhinitis due to inhalation of respiratory sensitisers, including isocyanates in spray paints, wood dust, flour or grain, even animal hair and fish proteins
  • occupational dermatitis due to skin contact with irritant substances ranging from cement and oil to disinfectants and shampoos
  • muscle strains or Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) due to badly designed workstations, environments requiring awkward body postures or repetitive movements resulting in upper limb disorders, repetitive strain injury and other musculoskeletal conditions. Excessive vibration, e.g. from hand-held tools, can lead to hand arm vibration syndrome and circulatory problems.
  • noise-induced hearing loss due to high impact or constant exposure to damaging noise levels causing deafness and conditions such as tinnitus
  • burns, sickness and skin cancer due to exposure to ionising and non-ionising radiation including ultraviolet in the sun’s rays
  • work-related stress

Problems with identifying health risks

Problems in identifying health risks, include examples such as:

  • the health risk not being understood or well defined immediately and the cause/effect relationship not established due to long latency periods
  • health risks tending not to attract widespread publicity or demand the same urgent attention as safety risks
  • the majority of health risks having little, if any, short term effect. Ill-health may not occur for many years after exposure, with the affected no longer in the same working environment
  • individuals having different susceptibilities to harmful agents

Hierarchy of risk control

Elimination

Elimination of the risk can be achieved by redesigning the activity or equipment to eliminate the release of the hazard. Examples of which are:

  • remote working
  • redesign the job; avoid working at height where possible
  • use an alternative product or substance so that the hazard is removed

Substitution

Substitute the harmful agent with one with less harmful effects. This may negate the need for existing expensive control measures.  Examples are:

  • substitute a dust producing powder for a pre packed liquid in required quantities
  • replacing a high density block for a lightweight version

Control

Control the risk through procedural controls. This involves implementing systems and procedures so work is carried out using a specific procedure limiting exposure to a hazard. Examples are:

  • enclose the activity or equipment to capture and/or absorb the hazard, such as, local exhaust ventilation to control dust and fumes
  • arrange plant and equipment to create screens and reduce levels of reflected sound
  • appropriate information, training and instruction from a competent qualified person
  • provide clean washing facilities – hot and cold running water, soap, suitable drying materials, skin emollients and display simple instruction on skin care

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

The use of appropriate and comfortable PPE is the last resort for the control of the exposure of employees to hazards to health. PPE only protects the individual, not other employees in the affected vicinity, and then only if worn properly. Even where engineering controls and safe systems of work have been applied, some hazards might remain.

Important aspects of occupational health and hygiene for employers

A more productive workforce can be achieved by ensuring their working environment is safe, healthy and assessed for exposures to harmful agents.

  • knowledge of cause and effects of ill health from the working environment
  • promoting awareness at all levels of the workforce, highlighting areas for improvement and sustain a continued positive attitude to workplace health and safety
  • adequate welfare facilities, especially within construction, preventing continued exposure to harmful agents
  • providing initial and continued medical assessments, including health surveillance and monitoring
  • identifying and isolating potential causes of ill health at an early stage preventing long term exposures and harmful effects

Occupational rehabilitation of employees after illness or injury and subsequent monitoring of the workplace and work activity will lower reoccurrence of issues, promoting the employer and ensuring continued effectiveness, reducing the costs associated with absence, recruitment and insurance.

Legal requirements

The Health and Safety at Work (Jersey) Law 1989 places a duty on employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees, providing them with a safe and healthy working environment.

In summary, it requires employers to:

  • assess risks to health
  • identify and implement the control measures which will reduce those risks
  • provide and maintain safe systems of work
  • provide and maintain plant
  • ensuring the absence of risk from using, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances

An employer who employs five or more employees must ensure assessments of the significant risks are formally recorded and written down.

Statistics

Latest figures from the Health and Safety Inspectorate indicate 7,735 working days were lost as a result of accidents in Jersey in 2013, yet 9,092 days were lost over the same period as a result of work related ill health. However the 16,827 total working days lost, the majority for ill health, is a reduction of 19% from the 2012 figures.

Comparable figures from the UK Health and Safety Executive, show 27 million working days were lost in Great Britain in 2011/2012 through work injuries and ill health; 15% of these were due to injuries, the remaining 85% were due to ill health, amounting to 23 million working days. Over the same period, 173 people died due to work related accidents in Great Britain, yet some 12,000 people died from work related ill health in 2011/2012.

In summary

The Health and Safety Inspectorate’s aim is to ensure risks to people’s health and safety from work activities are properly controlled and managed. Each employer has a legal duty to put in place suitable arrangements to manage their own, their employee’s and others who may be affected by their work activities, health and safety.

There are many health risks employees are exposed to on a daily basis; identifying and managing the reduction and elimination of these exposures is essential. The long term health of a high percentage of the population can be improved greatly with improvements made now.

Occupational Health and Hygiene should promote and maintain the highest level of physical, mental and social wellbeing of workers in all occupations, strongly focusing on primary prevention of hazards. 

There are a number of risk factors which contribute to ill health, leading to:

  • cancers
  • musculoskeletal diseases
  • dermatitis
  • respiratory diseases
  • hearing loss
  • stress
  • communicable diseases and others

In fulfilling their responsibilities to protect workers, employers:

  • improve productivity
  • improve reputation
  • save costs associated with absence, recruitment and insurance

Further information

Work related stress: information for employers

Work related stress: information for employees

Information is also available from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website

UK HSE website: work related stress

UK HSE website: noise at work

UK HSE website: musculoskeletal disorders

UK HSE website: work related skin disorders

UK HSE website: skin disorders at work

UK HSE website: information on asthma

UK HSE website: occupational cancer

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