This article was originally published in June 2016.
I’m particularly pleased to see “highlighting and tackling the burden of work related ill health” as number two on the list of six strategy priorities. In fact at the London HSE Strategy Roadshow the Minister with responsibility for Health and Safety, Justin Tomlinson MP, kicked off the event by talking about three overall themes the strategy aimed to deal with and the first was the burden of work related ill health. I was even more pleased to hear him then say he understood the importance of prevention and now knew what occupational hygienists do. As you might imagine that isn’t something I’ve heard a lot of ministers say! Dame Judith Hackitt the HSE Chair followed this up placing further emphasis on the need to deal with both the human and financial costs of work related ill health, disease and death.
BOHS, as the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, has been working hard for a number of years now to raise the profile of these issues and signpost people to the solutions that occupational hygiene provides for accurately assessing and effectively controlling workplace health risks. I’m daring to believe that after decades of focus primarily on safety issues, which has obviously yielded significant results in accident fatality reduction, we are now entering an era where we are prepared to face up to the bigger and harder task of tackling the burden of work related ill health.
The short answer is “I certainly hope so!”. BOHS has been pleased to play our part in the Health in Construction Leadership Group made up of key industry leaders which was behind that event. We all know how easy it is for committees and groups to fall into the trap of saying the right things and failing to deliver any real change. However, as far as I can tell the leaders on this group from across industry, the professions, the regulator and unions are determined to deliver.
The turnout of construction CEO’s, board members and directors at the summit (over 150) certainly indicates we’ve got the right people’s attention. However, it will require determination, because as we are all aware, the latency issue with many occupational diseases means that it could be a generation before the full beneficial effects of any action are delivered. That’s not to say there won’t be ‘quick wins’ in terms of reduced sickness absence, but we will have to accept that reducing exposures will mean eventual reduction in the mortality statistics.
It’s not much good having your sickness absence managed, eating ‘5 a day’ and doing your mindfulness exercises if you then breathe in respirable silica for 8 hours a day!
In one sense this depends on the industry you work in. If it’s construction then the risks will be around silica dust, MSDs and mental health, if it’s engineering then you may be talking about noise, welding fume or metal working fluid, if it’s the pharma industry then I guess you’d be talking about bio hazards and containment issues and if it’s hairdressing it will be dermal exposures. As you can probably tell I’m not an occupational hygienist so I only have an awareness of these things. The huge variety and complexity of exposures across the whole of industry is why occupational hygienists are trained in aspects of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, toxicology, ergonomics, medicine, psychology and management.
Aside from the specific risks I think there is a key overarching issue in health and hygiene at work. To put it in question form it would be, “What sort of ‘health’ do you mean?” In his seminal report of 1972 which was the precursor of the Health and Safety at Work Act, Lord Robens understood the distinction between treatment and prevention. In Chapter 12, he set out the clear distinction between the curative/caring clinical disciplines and the non-clinical preventative science and engineering discipline of occupational hygiene. Both were needed then and both are needed now. In addition in recent years a third type of ‘health’ has emerged in wellbeing, which brings the modifiable factors of public health into the workplace. Just like hygiene and medicine, wellbeing forms a vital part of the whole picture of health in the workplace. So we need to be clear what sort of ‘health’ we are talking about. Is it ‘occupational health’ that deals with treatment, sickness absence management, health surveillance etc.; is it occupational hygiene that controls occupational exposures and prevents disease or is wellbeing that helps people make good life choices about their own health?
Since Roben’s time, the term ‘occupational health’ has confusingly been taken to mean the whole of workplace health, as if it prevented workplace exposures. As I’m sometimes tempted to say when in provocative mood, “it’s not much good having your sickness absence managed, eating ‘5 a day’ and doing your mindfulness exercises if you then breathe in respirable silica for 8 hours a day!”
As my previous answer indicates health in the workplace is a multi-disciplinary task involving a number of professions. I can only speak for the preventative profession of occupational hygiene. Seven years ago when I first discovered this world and started my role as CEO at BOHS I would say the profession was plateauing and maybe in slow decline. Our membership numbers hovered around 1000, conference attendance was declining, jobs were scarce, no public figures ever mentioned occupational hygiene and members were not optimistic.
Today we have nearly 2000 members in 47 countries, occupational ill health and disease is on the agenda nationally, we have successfully launched our first industry initiative in construction (www.breathefreely.org.uk), hygiene jobs are being advertised and our conferences and qualifications have seen significant growth. All this is good and motivates us to do more, but there’s obviously a long way to go to realise our vision of a healthy working environment for everyone. We need all the help we can get to raise awareness of the burden of occupational disease and the solutions occupational hygiene provides.
Steve is a seasoned business and third sector leader with twenty years of experience working with, professionals, scientists and volunteers. He is currently CEO at BOHS – The Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection; a global non-profit membership society and awarding body working in the field of occupational hygiene and health. Steve provides clear leadership, strategic direction and heads up the BOHS Senior Management Team.