It is really pleasing to see an increasing focus on health at work in the UK. For many years safety has taken precedence, but economic, social and political changes have driven a change in approach, and there is now much more discussion about health, wellbeing and sustainability.
We now see publicity, conversations and workplace initiatives focussing on nutrition, fitness, mental health and fatigue, alongside more traditional topics such as slips and trips, falls from height, machinery safety and manual handling. This is a positive change with the potential to deliver real benefits to workers, employers and the society.
However it’s important that we don’t lose focus on the health risks associated with exposure to hazardous materials in the workplace.
A great many workers handle and use materials that have the potential to be hazardous to health. Sometimes exposure can result in acute health effects requiring immediate medical attention, and prompting swift action to rectify the issue. However, in many cases there is a long-latency period between exposure and the appearance of adverse health effects. If we are serious about workplace health, then it is essential to make sure that our risk management processes are adequately taking account of all potentially hazardous agents.
It’s not just about chemical products either, physical agents such as noise, vibration, extremes of temperature and radiation are equally important. These are not new issues in the UK workplaces, but occupational lung disease, hand-arm vibration syndrome, noise induced hearing loss and occupational cancers still affect a significant number of workers.
We must not allow the increasing focus on more general wellbeing to eclipse these long-standing occupational health issues which result in real suffering for those people affected.
HSE have recently published a draft strategy on health and work. It focuses on three key issues; occupational lung disease; musculoskeletal disorders and workplace stress. This is accompanied by a sector engagement strategy, which helps to highlight the themes which are of particular importance in key areas of the British economy.
We need to make sure that the long- term health effects of new materials are properly considered before they are put in widespread use. Back in the early part of the 20th century, asbestos featured in an increasing range of products and applications. It wasn’t until much later that we became aware of the harm that asbestos fibres can cause, and as a result there are still an increasing number of people being diagnosed with asbestos related illnesses each year.
It’s important that we learn lessons from the past and ensure that the pace of innovation does not preclude thorough testing and evaluation of new products and materials.
Equally, developments in automation, robotics, and remote technology offer significant opportunities to remove people from hazardous environments completely, thus eliminating any potential for exposure and resulting impacts on their health. We need to seek opportunities to deploy new technology to help improve the management of existing hazards in our workplaces.
It may not be easy to achieve, but it is absolutely essential if we are to establish equity between health and safety in our workplaces.
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