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February 28, 2024

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Diabetes – A hidden epidemic for Safety Managers?

Employers have a duty to ensure that all their staff are fit for work – and for safety managers, that means fit to drive as well. That responsibility means they must, where necessary, arrange for periodic health surveillance.

Driving is the most dangerous work activity that most people do, and it contributes to far more work-related accidental deaths and serious injuries than all other work activities. So, when you add in the added complication of a nationwide diabetes epidemic, it’s certainly another challenge for those who manage health and safety.

What do managers need to know?

The Driving for Better Business Programme hosts a monthly podcast for anyone who employs or manages people who drive at work, or as part of their working day.

In a recent episode we spoke with Kate Walker, Managing Director of the Diabetes Safety Organisation to understand the hidden risks that pre-diabetes and diabetes can present for those who have the condition – and to find out more about an employer’s responsibilities. Listen to the podcast.

The Diabetes Safety Organisation highlights that diabetes is a hidden epidemic exposing all companies and organisations to increased absenteeism, increased risk of accidents, and therefore increased risk of company liability – and, as the current statistics show that one in 12 in the working population is living with diabetes, it’s more than likely affecting some of your employees right now.

Crucially, diabetes is a known foreseeable risk in the workplace. There is legislation that needs to be followed, which is often not understood well.

For starters, there’s a common misconception that diabetes is simply a medical issue. Type 1, 2 and all other variants of Diabetes are generally recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 or if you live in Northern Ireland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Diabetes is also commonly regarded and classed as an unseen or invisible disability because of the emphasis on individual experience. Employers are therefore expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for employees to stop discrimination taking place.

When it comes to drivers with diabetes for example, reasonable adjustments might include:

  • Flexibility over schedules to allow breaks every 2 hours to test blood sugar levels.
  • Flexibility in working hours to accommodate regular health checks.
  • A place to keep insulin cool during the day.
  • In some cases, changing duties or a transfer to an alternative role.

There is an increased risk of accidents from those who are undiagnosed, or those who are not managing it well. A diabetic ‘hypo’ for example is when the blood sugar levels drop too low, and this can cause palpitations, shaking, confusion, blurry vision and many other symptoms that are not conducive to safe driving.

If employers and safety managers can be educated to understand the requirements of their people with diabetes, removing any stigma in the workplace, it really allows both the driver and our roads to become safer.

When is diabetes a DVLA notifiable condition?

There are 5 million people in the UK with the condition. Of the 5 million, only 4% – about 400,000 – are living with Type 1 diabetes. Everybody else is living with Type 2.

A further 12.6 million in the UK have pre-diabetes. These numbers are significant and if people are unmanaged, time off from work increases, and there is an increased risk of accidents from those who are undiagnosed.

Safety managers need to understand the difference between the two types of diabetes to provide the right support and ensure the right rules are followed.

There are no blanket bans on driving with diabetes in the UK. Anyone can drive if their blood sugars are well managed and they’re looking after themselves.

However, there are extra rules for people with diabetes who want to drive. For example, a driver with diabetes should stop driving and contact the DVLA as soon as they find out they must take insulin for the long term, or if they start to develop complications. If they don’t, they’re breaking the law.

The rules differ depending on the vehicle – for those who drive a bus or a lorry (Group 2 driving licence) the laws are stricter.

Good practice for managing diabetes risk

There are 1 million people in the UK who are undiagnosed, so perhaps the first question is how do we help people to know it’s safe to go and get tested? There’s a part for employers to play here, to recognise the symptoms, encourage diagnosis, and then help the employee to stay well and in employment for longer.

The complications from diabetes are what cause people to have to quit their jobs – there are 190 amputations a week in the UK from the toe upwards, due to diabetes.

From a management perspective, education on the different types of diabetes is an excellent starting point. Then, it’s about asking the individual what they need – because everyone’s diabetes is different, even within Type 1 and Type 2.

  • Do they need to take time to take blood tests?
  • Do they need somewhere to keep their insulin cool, particularly in the summer?
  • Have they got somewhere on-site or in their vehicles where they keep their sugar and glucose shots, in case they have a hypo?

Another important question is whether other people around the employee need to know, and are they happy for that to happen?

Managers should check that first aiders know how to deal with diabetes and hypos, ensure that the right risk assessment is in place, and check that their driving for work policy covers fitness to drive.

In the unfortunate event of a serious or fatal incident, the employer will be asked ‘what have you done that is reasonable and practicable to mitigate the risks?’

As I said at the beginning of the article, diabetes is a known and foreseeable risk, and ensuring diabetes awareness and education in the workplace, with relevant policies and risk assessments in place would be an expected minimum.

The Diabetes Safety Organisation have resources to help safety managers understand the condition, and links to these are all available from our podcast page here.

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