‘Working for a healthier workplace’ is a slogan used by the British Occupational Hygiene Society in the UK to promote the profession of occupational hygiene.
Discuss how the provision of a ‘healthier workplace’ can result in a reduction of work related illness and sickness absence. Examine the role of the occupational hygienist in improving workplace health, either as part of a health and safety team in a large organisation or as a consultant employed by a smaller company.
According to the British Occupational Hygiene Society, ‘Occupational hygiene is about recognizing, evaluating and controlling health hazards arising from work’ (BOHS, 2005). Many occupations require their workers to be exposed to hazardous conditions and evaluating and preventing these dangers of work is the sole aim of all occupational safety associations, committees and councils.
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In this essay we discuss health, hygiene and safety procedures in different industries and enterprises. For example, in the hospitality and food sectors, the National Food Safety guidelines have to be followed and basic food safety practices have to be maintained (Howard, 2004).
Within all areas and sectors, the major competencies and performance criteria point to two areas of workplace rules:
- Maintaining hygiene procedures –
- following workplace hygiene procedures in accordance with enterprise standards, legal requirements
- Storing and handling items according to enterprise requirements and legal obligations.
- Identifying and preventing hygiene related risks –
- Identifying potential hygiene risks in the job
- Taking steps to minimize or eliminate the risks associated with lapse of hygienic procedures within the limits of individual responsibility and in accordance with enterprise regulations and legal requirements.
- Reporting hygiene risks and procedural dangers as identified to the appropriate authority such as the occupational hygiene consultant.
Identifying risks, maintaining hygiene procedures, preventing and controlling risks and reporting hygiene related dangers are the major hygiene related regulations that should be followed within any industry.
We will discuss specific hygiene related risks and hygiene procedures within different industries and sectors. In the course of our discussion, we will examine:
1. The type and extent of workplace health problems in the UK and other countries;
2. Provide an overview of technical and organisational control measures;
3. The benefits and limitations of exposure monitoring;
4. The benefits and limitations of health surveillance programmes; and
5. The role of the occupational hygienist in developing ‘healthy workplace’ strategies.
Occupational Hygiene – Issues and Procedures
According to the International Occupational Hygiene Association, Occupational Hygiene is defined as ‘the discipline of anticipating, recognising, evaluating and controlling health hazards in the working environment with the objective of protecting worker health and well-being and safeguarding the community at large.’
Occupational hygiene involves the proper identification of hazardous and harmful elements or agents used within a work environment which can be of physical, chemical or biological nature and can cause serious diseases, discomfort or even death due to exposure to these dangerous elements; evaluating the risks involved due to exposure to these hazardous agents; and control of hygiene related risks to prevent disease, death or ill health in the long term (Liberman and Gordon, 1989). The phrase is used synonymously with industrial hygiene and a company usually requires the consultation of a trained industrial or occupational hygienist to maintain the legal and procedural requirements of hygiene in the workplace.
The Workplace Hygiene Charter managed by the Occupational Safety and Health Council provides the framework for occupational health and safety standards that have to be followed by all industrial sectors. The Charter provides the following criteria for employers and employees to meet workplace hygiene standards:
Workplace Cleanliness – in terms of clean environment and regular cleaning and dusting facilities
Free of Accumulated Water – any water accumulated due to rain or other reasons should be removed to prevent insect breeding or other conditions detrimental to health
Refuse Collection – the garbage should be collected regularly to maintain a clean environment in the workplace
Drinking Facilities- drinking water should not be contaminated and should be clean and free of germs
Pantry – food available within office precincts as in canteen should be prepared in a hygienic manner and high quality foodstuff should be used
Pest Control – any presence of pests, insects or germs should be noted and removed with the help of professional pest control agencies, if required
Ventilation – proper clean air and air circulation recommended
Sanitary Conveniences – clean toilets and quick disposal of sanitary wastes are necessary
Workplace Hygiene Information – this sort of information should be shared among professionals to increase awareness
Maintenance and Monitoring – proper maintenance of workplace equipments and facilities and regular monitoring or checking of these facilities have also been recommended by the Charter.
According to a Government White paper published by the Department of Health, ‘Twomillionpeoplesufferanillnesstheybelieve hasbeencausedby, ormadeworseby, theirwork.
The paper produced as a report by the Department of Health suggests that although beinginwork, rather than being unemployed generallyleadsto betterhealth, notallworkplacescan be considered as healthy.There is considerable evidence and many research studies to show that lack of job control, monotonous and repetitive work, and imbalance in efforts and reward are all associated with health problems, chronic disease and coronary heart disease. The importance of job satisfaction has been highlighted as primary in promoting occupational health. Thus although work is generally considered good for people’s health, poor health and safety management and lack of a pleasant work environment increases risks of occupational hazards, diseases and injury.
The DH government report further asserts that stress related conditions and musculoskeletal disorders are now the commonest causes of work related sick leave. Any focus on stress however can be counterproductive as it can lead to failure to tackle underlying causes of problems in the workplace. The problems and complex issues at the workplace can cause stress and affect people’s wellbeing leading to physical and mental ill health.
Official Industry guides to general safety and hygiene practices show different hygiene procedures recommended for different industries.
In a survey of hygiene knowledge among 1000 catering workers carried out by the Food Standards Agency in 2002, suggest that:
- More than a third of staff (39%) neglect to wash their hands after visits to the lavatory whilst at work.
- Half of all those interviewed (53%) did not appear to wash their hands before preparing food.
- Less than two thirds (59%) of the catering workers questioned had a certificate in basic food hygiene.
- Only 32% believed good food hygiene practices were important to their business compared with 64% who saw good food as the key to keeping their customers.
(Source: Catering Workers Hygiene Survey, 2002)
Within the workplace in case of food and hospitality industries safe and hygienic handling of food and beverage, regular hand washing, proper method of storing food to prevent contamination, using appropriate and clean clothing, avoiding contamination from food or to food stuffs, appropriate and careful handling of garbage, safe disposal of garbage, linen and maintaining standard sanitising procedures and personal hygiene are essential (Smith et al, 2005). The specific hygiene related risks in a food or hospitality industry can be bacterial contamination due to poor handling and storage, storage at wrong temperatures, uncovered or exposed foodstuffs, poor personal hygiene practice in the workers, poor cleaning and housekeeping processes and no protection against dust, insects or contaminated wastes. Poorly disposed garbage or inappropriate handling of waste or contaminated materials can lead to potential hygiene hazards.
Apart from regular monitoring, control measures to improve hygienic practices in all industry sectors include:
Providing training and knowledge to staff on hygiene related issues and auditing staff skills, ensuring that policies, regulations and procedures both of the enterprise and legal systems are followed strictly by staff members, maintaining audits of incidents, related to occupational hazards and hygiene and following up on progress of affected workers suffering ill health or disease due to occupational risks encountered (Taylor, 2004).
However even if monitoring and regular checks to prevent occupational hazards have their own advantages, there are limitations to which this can be attained as there may be practical problems associated with maintaining safety procedures at the workplace. An example is given by the British Occupational Hygiene Society and the organisation’s website shows a problem too common in tropical agriculture and work in this area. The picture shows a man spraying pesticides on rice, but not wearing adequate protection (because of the heat and humidity), and many pesticides can be absorbed through the skin as well as by inhalation and affect safety of the workers. This is a very good example of the risks involved in certain occupations that necessitate direct encounter with harmful chemicals because of the nature of the job. Yet, as seen from this example, despite knowledge of the hazards and the safety procedures involved, the conditions may not be conducive to use all the safety measures and thus the hazards continue to remain in many cases.
One of the ways of monitoring and checking for occupational hazards and work related illness is by health surveillance measures taken by employers (Murphy et al, 2002). According to the Health and Safety executive (HSE), health surveillance is about closely monitoring for early signs of work-related ill health in employees who are exposed to certain health risks.
This involves using certain procedures that include:
â– simple methods such as looking for skin damage on hands from using certain harmful chemicals;
â– technical checks on employees, such as hearing tests;
â– detailed medical examinations to diagnose deep rooted or chronic illnesses.(HSE, 2005)
Health surveillance is more than general health checks and can be done by the employees themselves or by occupational hygienists. In general health surveillance is especially recommended for prolonged exposure to loud noise or hand-arm vibration as in automobile or electronics industries; exposure to solvents, fumes, dust, biological agents and substances harmful to health as in chemical or agricultural industries; exposure to asbestos, lead or work in compressed air as in mechanical or electrical jobs and exposure to ionising radiations and diving as in marine or nuclear industries.
Considering all the aspects of identifying, controlling and managing and reporting risks and health hazards in occupations, the role of the occupational hygienist takes centre stage. The British Occupational Hygiene Society has promoted a slogan for a safer and healthier workplace. As we have seen from Department of Health publications and Workplace Hygiene Charter maintaining hygienic, safe and healthy conditions at the workplace is a basic requirement and the hazard preventive techniques have also been highlighted. The primary role of the occupational and industrial hygienist in promoting awareness about hygiene and safety related issues and in monitoring safety procedures and facilities as well as identifying the risks of conditions seem to focus on the growing importance of a management process in promoting safety of workers.
Schulte et al. (2004) discuss the implications of knowledge management in creation, assessment, transfer and utilization of knowledge to address specific challenges. Knowledge management has been considered as a manageable asset and the authors suggest that occupational hygiene knowledge itself being specialised also represents a manageable asset in companies and occupational hygiene should be appraised in terms of knowledge management. Considering this, the role of the occupational hygienist or consultant who is primarily responsible for promoting or spreading this awareness and transfers knowledge as an asset to the employees at large, is extremely important. The hygienist manages, controls, distributes and utilizes knowledge for risk assessment, evaluation and control of the situation.
However things may just be improving as there is increased awareness on safety and hygiene issues at the workplace. Williams et al (2005) describe the changes in awareness in occupational hazards and risks of exposure. They found that workers who were directly involved in manufacturing operations in a chemical manufacturing facility in the US from 1976 to 1987 had likely TWA or time weighted average exposures to benzene of about 2ppm from 1976-1981 and 1ppm from 1982-1987. Their results seem to be consistent with improved industrial hygiene programs at chemical facilities and better awareness about this issue following adoption of stricter occupational exposure limits.
In this study we discussed the administrative, managerial and legislative procedures related to health and safety issues at the workplace. In this context we discussed regulations related to hygiene within the different sectors and the corresponding risks in different industries. The regulations for a healthier and safer workplace as put forward by the Department of Health and the slogan for a healthier and improved workplace by the British Occupational Hygiene Society are examined in the context of changing regulations, increased awareness and a more responsible role of the occupational hygienist. The practical problems of following control and preventative measures of risks have been shown and the role of the occupational hygienist has been emphasised in promoting awareness and a healthier safer workplace.
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