Dealing with diabetes

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Diabetes can pose serious health and safety risks at work, so it makes sense for employers to help their staff to effectively manage the condition, such as educating them about how diabetes can affect their ability to drive safely.

Diabetes affects 4.6 million people in the UK and poses health and safety risks that many people and companies do not recognise. Someone is diagnosed with diabetes every two minutes – that equates to 700 people a day, or a staggering 255,500 people a year.

What makes diabetes a health and safety risk at work?

  • The possibility of the person experiencing a ‘hypo’ (where their blood glucose or sugar level falls too low), leading to a sudden loss of consciousness or them acting as if they are drunk
  • A lack of sensation in the feet while driving vehicles or machinery
  • Impaired awareness
  • Impaired concentration
  • Impaired balance or co-ordination

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 develops when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, and the cause of this is unknown. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, which develops when the body doesn’t make enough insulin or the insulin the body is making is not being used properly.

Type 2 diabetes can be hard to recognise in the early stages and the symptoms can be put down to late nights and other lifestyle factors. It is therefore vital people get tested if they have any concerns. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Blurred vision
  • Cuts and wounds being slow to heal
  • Frequent urination
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
Employers should make reasonable adjustments for a worker with diabetes, such as allowing them to take short breaks to test their blood sugar levels. Photograph: iStoclEmployers should make reasonable adjustments for a worker with diabetes, such as allowing them to take short breaks to test their blood sugar levels. Photograph: iStocl

Companies and organisations therefore need to understand the condition fully and the impact it could have on their staff and their business. The potential implications at work include:

  • Increased time off for those not correctly managing their diabetes or those who are undiagnosed but experience symptoms that affect their ability to come to work
  • Increased risk of accidents – for example, if a worker suffers a hypo while operating machinery
  • A failure to comply with the Equality Act 2010, which protects people with diabetes from discrimination at work by their employer, and generally requires the employer to make reasonable adjustments for a worker with diabetes, such as allowing them short breaks to test their blood sugar levels
  • A failure to provide an appropriate place for staff with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels or take injectable medications
  • A failure to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to take appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable
  • A failure to comply with DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) regulations and guidelines for drivers regarding managing diabetes and the use of insulin.

The DVLA states people on insulin must check their glucose levels no more than two hours before driving, and they must repeat the check after every two hours of driving. The aim is to help reduce the risk of a driver suffering a hypo that could put themselves or others at risk without introducing a blanket ban on driving with diabetes, as many people have their diabetes under control.

For those who know they have diabetes, they can take steps to meet the DVLA regulations and guidance and therefore drive safely. However, there are around one million people with undiagnosed diabetes in the UK, and these people could pose an increased risk to themselves and other while driving – for example, if they have less sensation in their feet, which could affect their ability to control the vehicle’s foot pedals, or they have deteriorating vision.

However, there is good news; many people with type 2 diabetes can do something about it by making changes to their lifestyle. At the Diabetes Safety Organisation we know it is not easy to make sustained lifestyle changes so we are encouraging the ‘One Less Challenge’. This essentially means that, rather than cutting every food you like out of your diet, you strive to have one less of something. For example:

  • One less sugar in your tea/coffee, which, when spread across six cups in a day, means one kilogram less of sugar a month, or 12 kilograms less a year
  • One less biscuit three times a week which adds up to approximately 5.5 packets less a year.

So, simply having one less of something will have a significant, positive impact on people’s blood sugar levels and their overall health.

Also, to help prevent staff from developing diabetes, and support those with the condition, employers should:

  • Increase awareness and understanding of the condition among all staff
  • Educate those in high risk roles – for example, how diabetes can pose a health and safety risk if a worker with diabetes suffers a hypo while driving or operating machinery
  • Provide a non-judgmental environment where people feel they can share about their condition (there is still a stigma about type 2 diabetes being associated with a person’s weight)
  • Provide an appropriate place at work for staff with diabetes to test their blood sugar levels and take injectable medications
  • Remind workers who drive to ensure they are stopped in a safe place when they test their blood sugar levels
  • Ensure specific diabetes health and safety risk assessments and safe systems of work are in place.

Diabetes is leaving people at risk. So sign up to the Diabetes Safety Organisation’s One Less Challenge and our Tackling Diabetes Safety Charter to help make a difference.

For more advice see diabetessafety.org
Or email: [email protected]

Being Well Together, the programme from the British Safety Council designed to help employers support and improve the health and wellbeing of their staff, recently hosted a webinar on reducing the health and safety risks posed by diabetes at work in partnership with Diabetes Safety Organisation and Gowling WLG law firm. Listen to the recording here

For more information on Being Well Together see beingwelltogether.org

Kate Walker is CEO of the Diabetes Safety Organisation


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