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April 13, 2015

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Protecting worker health in the NHS

Damien Eaves, a Chartered Occupational Hygienist and member of BOHS, The Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, describes his experiences as an occupational hygienist in the NHS.

Occupational hygienists are specialists in the protection of worker health and so, within the NHS – the UK’s largest employer with a workforce of 1.6 million – our emphasis is on the health part of health and safety in hospitals.

Working as an occupational hygienist in the NHS is very different from working within most other organisations. First, there’s the sheer scale of the NHS and the many different people it employs, from cleaners and porters to midwives and consultants. Second, in addition to the workforce, hygienists in the NHS have a duty of care to protect patients’ health, with common issues to consider including infection, indoor air quality and legionella for example.

On a given day, my focus could be on a wide range of health hazards, from the radiation to which orthopaedic surgical teams and radiographers could potentially be exposed, to risks associated with manual handling as nurses lift patients.

Some of the hazards I’ve encountered in hospital settings are unique to the particular site and wouldn’t appear on any occupational health hazard checklist. For example, in one NHS setting, a porter was regularly asked to drive his cart full of linen to the laundry. In taking the most direct route, he had to drive over numerous speed bumps. Anyone who is familiar with a porter’s electric vehicle will know that these vehicles tend not to have any suspension, often having a rigid seat and solid rubber tyres.   In this case, whole body vibration issues could, potentially, have been significant.

Other hazards could relate to the drugs being administered in hospitals. For example, expectant mothers and patients in recovery after surgery often have lungs full of anaesthetic gases. As they exhale, midwives and recovery staff could then be working in an environment with potentially high levels of waste anaesthetic gases.

It is the job of the occupational hygienist to identify these hazards, evaluate them, and then implement suitable controls.

Controls might be straightforward or quite complex. In the case of the laundry porter, the required solution may simply be to identify an alternative flat route whereas in the example of the waste anaesthetic gases, controls could feature more complex air change rate calculations and gas scavenging systems.

The fundamental difference between occupational hygienists and most other health professionals hinges on the issue of prevention versus cure. In general, health professionals are asked to control and cure existing conditions. In contrast, the occupational hygienist must use scientific knowledge and testing to prevent people from getting ill in the first place.

It is estimated that approximately 1 in 23 of the working population is employed within the NHS. As an occupational hygienist, ensuring a healthy environment for both patients and staff in an organisation as large and diverse as the NHS is not only very interesting, but also incredibly rewarding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADamian Eaves, chartered occupational hygienist and member of BOHS, The Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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