The main causes of workplace ill health
Last year 1.2 million people in the UK were suffering from an illness caused by the conditions at their place of work. Ill-health due to the working environment is now a major focus for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), particularly as the economic costs are growing each year.
Jerry Hill, Head of Consultancy Support – Safety, Health and Environment, for business consultancy and advisory service NatWest Mentor, looks at the main causes of workplace ill health and how attention should change to include mental aliments as much as physical ones.
It’s often thought that the most common cause for lost days from work is injury; however a recent report from the HSE shows that the majority of cases are actually due to substances employees are exposed to. Occupational cancer is the reason for thousands of deaths in the UK with mesothelioma, the cancer associated with asbestos, causing over 2,000 deaths in 2012.
Many are unaware that they have come in contact with the cancer causing particles and even though prohibition laws were introduced to the UK in the mid-1980s, the nature of the substance means that buildings containing asbestos are still being discovered. The particles can lie dormant in the body for a number of years, causing cancer decades after exposure. It’s predicted that there will be a sharp increase in the number of mesothelioma cases over the next few years, due to the heavy use of asbestos within industry until the 1970s.
Even if contact with the toxic substance has been made, precautions can be taken by both employers and employees to avoid development of asbestos-related diseases. Protective clothing should always be worn, especially in industries where asbestos was more commonly used. It’s particularly important that an appropriate standard of face mask, designed to guard against asbestos inhalation to avoid breathing in fibres that may be in the air, as well as disposing of, or cleaning, clothing contaminated by asbestos in an approved manner to prevent others from unwanted exposure. Be cautious if carrying out renovations on an older property, as disturbing hidden asbestos that has aged is exceptionally dangerous.
Regular monitoring of health is vital for those who have been exposed. Your local doctor will be able to conduct a mesothelioma blood test to detect traces of the cancer before symptoms appear. It’s also a good idea to have annual imaging tests performed on your lungs, which could include x-rays or pulmonary function tests to measure lung capacity.
Harmful dusts are also responsible for many lung related illnesses, and employers should be aware of the risks and preventative measures that can be implemented. The HSE has recently launched a micro-site that details all necessary information related to dust. “Dust hub” informs employers of the COSHH law and how best to avoid legal complications, as well as providing useful links to other sites.
An employer must always consider the risk of dust to employees by designing processes to minimise the production and spread of hazardous substances. Any circumstances where exposure through inhalation, contact with skin or ingestion could occur should be prohibited or carefully monitored. In addition to using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), employees should be fully informed and trained about the risks involved and how best to follow the control measure established by their employer.
Aside from more physical afflictions – such as those caused by asbestos and dust – stress, depression and anxiety account for 39% of all work-related illnesses, with an average of 23 days lost per case. The main stimulators of stress have been identified as increasing workloads and changes to working environments. The year 2014 saw 244,000 new cases of stress reported to HSE, bringing the total of known cases to 487,000, highlighting the increasing importance of the issue.
Employers should look out for the warning signs of excessive stress at work, primarily withdrawal from colleagues or irritability. Ignoring symptoms could lead to bigger problems, such as prolonged leave from work, reduced productivity and additional health trouble. It’s in an employer’s best interests to take responsibility for employee stress levels. Improving communication between management and teams can help reduce anxiety caused from uncertainty, as well as creating a friendly social climate that encourages others to speak about their concerns. Involving employees in decisions that will affect their working life builds a report between staff and ensures that the environment is a place that’s enjoyed, in turn increasing willingness to work harder.
Employers are accountable for the health of their staff, and ignoring signs or preventative measures could lead to legal action and a less effective workforce. And all of us need to be aware that workplace ill-health – often unseen – can be just as damaging as a slip, trip or fall.
Jerry Hill is Head of Consultancy Support – Safety, Health and Environment, for business consultancy and advisory service NatWest Mentor.
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