What is occupational health?
Traditionally, occupational health was a distinct branch of medicine. It was concerned with how an employee's health can affect their ability to do the job and how work and the working environment can affect an employee's health. Today, occupational health is more wide-ranging. It is still concerned with employees' health but can also include health promotion, risk assessment and well-being. It sometimes addresses lifestyle issues such as smoking, fitness, stress management, nutrition and obesity.
In the UK, employers must choose how they will fulfil their duty of care towards employees. They have a legal obligation to provide adequate management systems and services to deal effectively with occupational health risks. Employers need to decide the level of occupational health provision they need to achieve this. They also need to be clear on the role that they want occupational health advisors to have in helping them manage sickness absence. Many employers include a clause within their sick pay policy to the effect that an employee may be required to visit the OH service as a condition for continuation of sick pay. Many also promote employee wellbeing.
One of the main differences between a good and a not-so-good occupational health service is the level of knowledge the occupational health advisors have of the employer's workplace. This ranges from the office environment to the manual labour in the works depots and everything in between.
An occupational health service can include:
General guidance and advice
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- Pre-employment screening ensures that people with health conditions or disabilities are not unreasonably prevented from taking up jobs. It also ensures that organisations avoid recruiting employees whose health will prevent them doing the job for which they have been selected;
- Providing occupational immunisation programmes, where appropriate;
- Introducing suitable control measures to prevent ill-health, such as back pain, arising from working conditions or practices;
Reducing sickness absence and ill-health retirement by:
- assessing fitness for work and the suitability of available jobs;
- enabling access to interventions such as physiotherapy or counselling. Employers can consider using occupational health services to provide a faster route to services than currently available through the NHS;
- advising on adaptations to the working environment or retraining to retain employees who might otherwise be unable to continue in their current role; and
- reviewing occupational accident, ill-health and sickness records to identify the root cause of problems.
- Supporting rehabilitation back to work. Steps to rehabilitation might include a phased return to work, adjusting working hours, providing transport support, allowing employees reasonable time to attend for treatment and making adjustments to the job and/or premises;
- Managing an 'Intervention' budget to facilitate reduction in waiting time for consultation, diagnostics or treatment (See Dyfed-Powys Police case study).
- Helping organisations comply with their legal duty to ensure an adequate management system and provision to deal with occupational health risks. The systems introduced will be geared to the specific needs of the organisation. Employers need to carry out an informed risk assessment on each job to identify whether any part of it is likely to cause or contribute to ill-health in the workplace and determine the action required to prevent people being made ill by work;
- Supporting first aid, either through direct provision, by training first aiders, or providing back-up.
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Health and Safety Issues
An occupational health service may, through direct provision or in a supporting capacity, depending on the organisation's safety arrangements, have a role in the following:
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- Providing or arranging health education in the workplace and teaching employees how to adhere to health and safety legislation;
- Providing health screening, for example blood pressure, cholesterol and health checks; and
- Assisting the organisation's employee wellbeing strategy, for example through the Welsh Assembly Government's Corporate Health Standard.
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