For a long time the effective management of health hazards and risks at work has been one of the Health and Safety Executive’s key priorities. Reporting on this priority, the Executive says that while many employers have a strong focus on managing safety, their management of health hazards is given much less attention. Here we’ll explore why this is the case and offer some solutions to help you.

Why the lack of focus on health hazards?

There are many reasons for this – not least the fact that the effects and consequences of exposure to health hazards at work don’t always become apparent until months, years and sometimes decades later. It’s a serious issue: last year 33,000 people in work and over 140,000 no longer in work had breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by their working environment. Where health issues are not being controlled, HSE inspectors are expected to take formal enforcement action and check that improvements are made.

How to reduce ill-heath at work

Work-related ill-health could be eliminated or reduced through effective management and control.

There are 3 key steps:

  • Identify the health hazards – Hazardous substances are identified by an international system of hazard warning labels, apart from a few processes that create harmful dust such as:
        • Wood dust in a joinery
        • Silica dust in a stone masons
        • Flour and sugar in bakers and confectioners
  • Assess and evaluate the risks to health – As well as the warning labels, suppliers will issue Safety Data Sheets setting out in detail the hazards and risks from use, along with comprehensive information on safe use and safe exposure levels.
  • Control and maintain control of those hazards and risks – It’s a legal requirement to eliminate the hazard entirely by using a non-hazardous product wherever possible. Sometimes a hazardous substance cannot be eliminated but it may be conceivable to reduce risk by substituting a less hazardous material. If that can’t be done, control must be achieved through a combination of technical or engineering and administrative and management controls.

Sometimes Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may be the only effective method of control but this is always the last resort. However, there’s no reason to prevent PPE being used to augment engineering and management controls for personal peace of mind.

High risk measures

Where the hazards are high and the risk to health is similarly elevated, it may be essential to check that control measures are effective or remain effective by monitoring personal workplace exposure – a task for an Occupational Hygienist.

For some hazardous substances, Occupational Health Surveillance of workers exposed to the hazards and risks is also necessary. Identification of health problems at an early stage allows action to be taken before they develop into serious issues.

Training is key

Training and involving workers is an essential part of managing control over hazardous substances. Workers who understand the hazards, risks and measures provided to reduce the risks to their health are more likely to co-operate and follow safe working procedures than those who don’t.

In summary, managers should work with their employees to:

  • Formally assess work-related health hazards and keep those assessments up to date
  • Introduce and maintain control measures, using personal protective equipment as a last resort
  • Consider the need to monitor personal exposure levels
  • Communicate and explain the results of monitoring
  • Make sure that everyone is fully aware of the hazards and risks
  • Identify where Health Surveillance is necessary or of benefit
  • Ensure that any PPE provided is fit for purpose and properly fitted to the individual using it
  • Ensure that employees know how to clean all PPE properly and have a suitable clean place to store it when not in use
  • Support the maintenance of controls by reporting back on defective equipment – including system and individual failures

Peninsula’s members have the support of their consultants and access to guidance information on the control of hazardous substances and on occupational health and health surveillance. They also have a 24/7 resource in our Help Service (0844 892 2785), staffed by trained and qualified advisers. We can also arrange for personal exposure monitoring and our Health Assured Team can also organise occupational health surveillance where that’s necessary.