The terms ‘occupational health’ (‘OH’) and ‘health and safety’ (H&S) can be confusing. They are both very important but are often mistaken for each other, and both encompass a wide range of activities, which overlap with each other to a certain degree.
Incorrectly, H&S can conjure up potentially negative images for some, associated with the perception in some quarters of overly-stringent health and safety rules. In reality, however, H&S is a vitally-important discipline defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as “preventing people from being harmed by work or becoming ill by taking the right precautions and providing a satisfactory working environment”.
OH could be described as “the promotion and maintenance of physical and mental well-being of all staff and the prevention of ill health”. Put very simply, it is about the effects of work on a person’s health, and of a person’s health on their ability to work.
H&S practices may appear to be pro-active (preventing risk) and OH practices re-active (dealing with employee health issues once they occur). However, this should rarely be the case, and much of the focus of OH should be to monitor employee health, improve health awareness and prevent illness before it occurs.
One way of considering the difference between H&S and OH might be to consider the difference between accidents and illnesses. For example, some work practices have the potential to put employees at risk and therefore need to be tightly controlled (e.g. production lines, organisations that require staff to work with heavy machinery, toxic substances, etc.). These safety aspects would be controlled by health and safety legislation. Similarly, particular types of work can put employees’ health at risk (e.g. lead poisoning or noise-induced hearing loss, stress or musculoskeletal disorders, etc.). The process of trying to prevent ill health, monitoring employee health and helping employees stay at work or return to work during/after illness, might fall under the remit of a person involved in the provision of OH services. The findings of OH in areas such as health surveillance should reinforce and influence safety practices.
The cross-over between the two disciplines is present in a number of areas and particularly in the areas of ‘risk assessment’ (ensuring that processes and policies are put in place to reduce work-related ill health). If the aim of H&S is to make working environments as safe and risk-free as possible, then risk assessment is vital. The same goes for OH: as OH sets out to check prior to exposure that employees are satisfactorily assessed for fitness to do their allocated jobs, to ensure that employees do not carry out tasks that they are unable to do due to a health issue, and to monitor the health of staff who at risk of developing occupational disease due to their work (health surveillance), then risk assessment is vital on all counts. One other notable similarity between the two disciplines is that they both require commitment and involvement from both employers and employees.
It is often the case that more attention is given to health and safety issues in the workplace because these are easier to quantify and manage than OH issues. For example, it is often easier to work out what has caused an accident at work than to assess whether an employee’s on-going health problems have been caused by, or exacerbated by, the working environment.
There is no doubt that the health of employees in the workplace is of profound importance to workers and the organisations they work for. That’s why Fit for Work offers free, professional advice on employee health issues with the aim of reducing sickness absence and keeping people and organisations healthy and productive. Visit the website to find out more, or call the freephone telephone advice line 0800 032 6235.