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May 21, 2009

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Practical tips to measure work-related ill health

Companies that want to collate more accurate occupational-health data

in relation to their staff need to adopt a ‘look to find’ approach.

This was the message delivered by Dr John McCaul, chief medical officer at RWE npower, to delegates at the Energy Industry SHE Management conference, held in Bath on 30 April.

Said McCaul: “There’s a view that the data is too difficult to collect and too inaccurate to be of use, so why bother measuring work-related ill health?”

He explained that with certain hazards, such as noise, vibration and dust, it is possible to calculate a specific measureable effect from exposure to the risk, and that workers can be monitored via health-surveillance techniques. He added, however, that in many other cases – such as common musculoskeletal disorders, dermatitis, and psychological stress – the effect on a person’s health is not so easy to measure, and the occupational hazard may not be the main cause.

Two of the biggest barriers that discourage employers from measuring work-related ill health in their organisations are the lack of definition regarding to what extent an ill-health case is work-caused, work-related, or work-exacerbated; and the fact that there is no perfect single source of data that employers can rely on.

Potential sources of data include self-referrals, or management referrals to the organisation’s occupational health (OH) specialist, who can also collect information through face-to-face consultation with the absentee when they return to work. But McCaul identified problems with each of these options. In the case of self-referrals, some individuals may wait and consult their GP instead; with management referrals, managers choose who they refer to the specialist, according to their own criteria; and expecting the OH specialist to consult with all employees returning to work after a period of sickness absence is not practicable.

The solution McCaul advised is to use all these sources and collate all data. This could involve the OH specialist reviewing all referred first-aider-diagnosed cases, and record all self-referred work-related cases. In combination with the occupational physician, the specialist should also consider the role of work in all management-referred cases. This approach needs to be backed up by controlled auditing and stringent record-keeping procedures to ensure accuracy, added McCaul.

Finally, he warned that benchmarking against other energy companies is currently very difficult, as there are very few organisations collecting this type of data. He therefore reached the conclusion that, first and foremost, employers need to achieve complete and accurate data collection if they are to succeed in reducing incidence rates of ill health in their organisations.

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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