What is occupational health?
Millions of workers in the UK are made ill each year because of their occupations. More than half of this is the result of musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain. Stress also affects more than 500,000 people a year. Most of these illnesses are easily avoidable. Occupational health is often known as OHS.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has identified two elements to occupational health for employers to concentrate on. The first and most important element is the effect of work on employees’ health and the health of others. This includes:
- identifying what can cause or contribute to ill health in the workplace;
- determining the action required to prevent people being made ill by work, based on a well-informed assessment of the risks;
- introducing suitable control measures to prevent ill health, such as back pain arising from working conditions and bad practices.
The second element is to make sure that:
- people with health conditions, or who have a disability or impairment, are not unreasonably prevented from taking up job opportunities;
- people at work are fit to perform their required tasks, for example, by adapting work practices for people with conditions such as epilepsy or asthma, or making sure that those who carry out manual handling tasks are fit to do so.
All of this means nothing unless occupational health addresses the adverse health effect of issues such as poor work organisation, long working hours and lack of employee control over their workload.
What are your employer’s responsibilities?
Every employer must provide a safe workplace and must assess risk at work. There is a whole range of health, safety and welfare legislation that requires such action.
Many employers consider that they meet their legal requirements by having a safety policy and a health and safety officer. However, no single person could have the combination of skills necessary to provide the kind of service required by law.
Employees have a right to protection from hazards in the workplace. Employers must take steps to ensure that they know about the hazards.
What are your responsibilities?
You also have a responsibility to minimise the risks to you and others in the workplace. The most important of these are:
- to take reasonable care not to endanger others at work;
- to use equipment or systems of work in the way you were trained;
- not to interfere with equipment or processes provided;
- to report injuries, illnesses or accidents at work;
- to report any aspect of your life that may affect safety at work (such as being on medication that can affect your ability to carry out your work).
The role of UNISON branches
The importance of occupational health, the type of services provided and the way it is provided should all be seen as negotiating issues in the same way as any other conditions of service.
UNISON branches can do their bit to promote a healthy workplace. Some UNISON branches have a social club; often this means just a bar. Consideration could be given to healthier activities such as sponsoring sports tournaments, organising lunchtime aerobics, yoga classes or a trip to a local swimming pool.
Also, joint employer/UNISON initiatives on issues such as smoking, health screening, blood donations and other health-related issues could be far more effective than just an employer’s initiatives.
Employers as well as UNISON members could benefit from good occupational health schemes, as it would stem the flow of work-related illness. With good schemes in place and a structured approach, prevention would also be of great significance.
Next steps for UNISON reps
When negotiating for OHS, reps must be aware that occupational health services should be accessible to all and based on the principal of empowering those most at risk.
They must be able to give advice and support to workers without the employer’s influence. Also, safety reps must be able to participate in the planning of the work of OHS practitioners.
Is the branch, or are safety reps, consulted on:
- The occupational health services required?
- How they will be provided?
- The occupational health unit’s work programme and targets?
- The type and content of health assessments?
- Do they get copies of reports produced by the occupational health service?
- How does the occupational health service fit in with the safety committee?
- Do the occupational health unit and health and safety staff work together as a team?
- Is the branch considering joint initiatives on health issues?
- Occupational health services can have a major effect in preventing ill health through work and in ensuring employees are able to return to work as early as possible after a period of sickness.
- You have the right to work in a safe, healthy atmosphere.
- Your employer must provide safe systems of work and appropriate safety equipment.
- You must take reasonable care to make sure your actions do not harm you or anyone else at work.
What if I feel unsafe at work?
You should refuse to complete any task you feel is unsafe. If your employer does not resolve the issue, you should contact your UNISON rep or steward immediately.
Who is responsible for my safety at work?
Your employer has a responsibility to make sure you are safe in any task related to your job. You are also responsible for acting in a manner that does not put you or others in danger.
What if I am disabled?
Reasonable adjustments to the workplace must be made for employees who are disabled. If your employer fails to do this they may be breaking the law.
What if the quality of my health changes during my career?
Your employer must take into account any changes in your health. If, for example, you injure your back, your employer must make reasonable adjustments to the workplace for you to able to carry out your work.