10 steps to nailing occupational health

Kim Pullinger, content writer · 08 Feb

Having an occupational health plan that works for your employees is essential. It not only shows that you're committed to your employees' health and wellbeing, but it also allows you to benefit as well.

Occupational health is a big topic these days. Having a decent occupational health plan shows that the employer is committed to its employees and cares about their wellbeing. Examples about what might be found in a good plan include paying for treatment for a work-related accident. However, occupational health is much more sophisticated than this in reality.

While strictly it's about treating problems that arise in the work place (as opposed to Health & Safety’s preventative priorities), there is an increasing move towards using occupational health, not only treat problems, but to also prevent them.

What is occupational health?

Well, it’s a sub-division of environmental health; the environment in question being the work place. Occupational health deals with workplace health and safety issues and has a strong focus on preventing the occurrence of hazards that can cause injuries and disease to employees.

First of all; a history lesson. Occupational health has changed a lot since Bernadino Ramazzini noticed that a lot of Italian miners were struggling with problems after being exposed to dust, dirt, and dangerous chemicals and hazardous substances all day in a lightless mine.

Ramazzini published a book called “Diseases of Workers” in 1700, and we’ve got him to thank for our GPs asking us about our work when we go to see them complaining of a particularly nasty cough.

 

Miner

 

The state of modern occupational health means that employers are responsible for ensuring that employees are not made sick by their work, and that they are healthy enough to work in the first place. At a first glance, this seems to place a lot of responsibility on employers, but of course they’re not responsible for their employees’ general health. Nevertheless, ensuring that a company has a proper plan in place for dealing with its occupational health responsibilities is key.

Not only does it ensure that employees are given what they are entitled to, but it also ensures that the workforce stays healthy and motivated. It’s a two-way relationship and keeping on top of things is in everyone’s best interests.

While occupational health was not always at the top of many employers’ list of priorities (think back to those history lessons where you learned about children working in factories for 14 hours a day during the Industrial Revolution), things have clearly progressed.

Occupational health used to focus on the diagnosis and subsequent prevention of illnesses caused by work. But as working conditions have improved and the differing nature of work-related stresses have been identified, the focus of occupational health has widened.

Occupational health is increasingly concerned with stress-related illnesses and assessing whether individuals are fit enough to undertake a specific job. This is usually the case where a job carries an extra responsibility to the public, such as pilots or train divers. However, it can also extend to employees who have to travel overseas on business trips.

 

Female pilot

 

So now we’ve got an overview of how occupational health has developed and what it tends to focus on in a modern setting. Let’s look at our top 10 picks for how to make sure that your occupational health plan is in tip-top shape. Make sure that your occupational health plan is: 

1. Does what it’s supposed to

Remember that occupational health plans could involve employers; implementing policies and ensuring health and safety compliance, conducting pre-employment health assessments, supporting health promotion and education programmes, providing advice and counselling to employees, and being able to offer guidance and advice and make reasonable adjustments to working conditions. In short, make sure that your occupational health plan is actually an occupational health plan!

2. Identifies and preventing illnesses caused by work

Occupational health is not just a way for employees to seek medical assistance if they get sick. As we’ve already mentioned above, it’s a way to prevent illness happening in the first place. An occupational health plan that helps to prevent illness occurring in the first place will be beneficial to everyone involved.

Warning triangle on road

3. Advises on employees' fit-to-work status

In some cases, employees will need to be tested to see if they are fit to do a particular job in the first place. As we looked at earlier, this could be if they want to become a pilot. If not, what other jobs could the employee do?

4. Provides emergency response on site

The best occupational health plans will be able to cater for emergency situations, rather than just longer-term issues. Having a GP on tap is all very well but medical attention is needed most when it's a critical situation. This is a benefit that employees will really appreciate.

5. Raises the companies health profile

Occupational health isn't just about preventing issues from getting worse, but it is also about improving the work force’s overall health. Improving and maintaining the health of a workforce is to the mutual benefit of both the employee and the employer.

Man celebrating in front of computer
6. Matches the needs of your workforce

Are the activities of your employees more likely to require physiotherapists or psychologists? Ideally, you want to have a wide range of services available, but you may have to prioritise.

7. Is appropriate for your business

This one may seem a bit obvious, but occupational health plans change depending on the size and priorities of the company. If you’re a large company, will you employ an in-house nurse with occupational health training and/or a part-time doctor, or if you’re smaller, will you work with an external provider on an as-and-when basis?

8. Works with the right healthcare professionals

The best occupational health doctors and nurses are those that have a good knowledge of your specific workplace and the hazards associated with it. It’s no use getting a specialist in the illnesses commonly seen amongst Italian miners if your employees spend their day supervising people on an ice-rink.

Doctor with child

9. Is easily accessible to employees

Make sure that employees know what’s available. This also seems a little obvious, but in order for everyone to get the best out of the occupational health service, it’s important that everyone knows what they’re entitled to. Not only will this mean that employees are encouraged to come forward and get problems sorted as quick as possible, but it also avoids the frustration and mistrust that can follow on from poor communication of valuable information.

Man with megaphone

10. Ensuring medical impartiality 

Make sure that your occupational health practitioners aren’t on any one “side”. It’s very important to promote your occupational health scheme in such a way that doesn’t imply bias. This shouldn’t be about you spying on your employees’ health. Rather, it should be about one person (you) having the ability to provide the medical help that another person (the employee) needs. As we’ve mentioned all along, this will benefit everyone in the long run.

Health care professional and stethoscope

So, we’ve had the chance to discuss what occupational health is and why it benefits both employers and employees. What to include in an occupational health package largely depends on what kind of business you are and what activities your employees will be undertaking.

Remember that an occupational health plan needs to be tailored to your employees’ specific needs. The best occupational health schemes have an element of prevention of dangers and illnesses, as well as the more traditional treatment aspect.

Hopefully this discussion will help you to be able to reflect on exactly what kind of occupational health programme your business should be offering. The key message to take from this, and one that should form the basis of your planning, and indeed your promotion amongst employees, is that a good occupational health plan will benefit both you and your employees. It really is a win-win!

 

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