Occupational Health

  • Occupational health
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

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Occupational health addresses both health & safety in the workplace and the wellbeing of employees. Peninsula explores why occupational health is important.

As an employer, you can ensure your staff work safely by utilising occupational health (OH).

When you create workplaces that promote the importance of personal health and wellbeing, it benefits everyone. And a great way to do that is through occupational health services.

Failing to care for staff wellbeing means you could face higher sickness absence, negligence fines, and even reputational damage.

In this guide, we'll discuss what occupational health is, the different types of OH services, and what employers benefit from them.

What is occupational health (OH)?

Occupational health (OH) is a service that helps you understand how an employee's health is affected by their working environment. And how their health may affect their work.

OH services allow employers to come up with developing solutions that:

  • Aim to prevent work-related accidents and injuries.
  • Help injured workers return to, or remain at, work.
  • Boost overall health promotion.

Research shows that being in work is generally better for your wellbeing, than being 'out of work'. It's not only good for you physically, it's beneficial for mental health, too.

The benefits of OH services aren't restricted to employees. Businesses gain a healthier workforce - meaning, an increase in productivity, output, and revenue.

What are examples of occupational health services?

There are several types of services you can choose from when it comes to occupational health. It all depends on the nature of your business and what OH service best suits it.

Some of the most common OH services help with things like:

  • Introducing wellbeing programmes for employees.
  • Complying with safety regulations (especially for high-risk workplaces).
  • Carrying out statutory health surveillance (to deal with hazardous substances or excessive noise risks). 
  • Offering organisational wide steps to help reduce sickness absence.
  • Ensuring employers fulfil legal duties under the Equality Act (including disabilitypregnancy and maternity; and age discrimination).

OH specialists won't usually 'treat' employees. Instead, they'll liaise with the employee's specialist medical practitioner (after gaining their consent). For example, asking doctors if an employee can return to work after recovering from a serious injury.

Who provides occupational health services?

You can generally access occupational health services through two disciplines.

The first one is from OH doctors, nurses, or anyone with specialist qualifications in occupational medicine. The second one is from OH physiotherapists, psychologists, and even medical technicians.

Larger businesses will usually hire their own in-house OH specialists. Smaller businesses may outsource an OH service if and when they need it.

But choosing OH services isn't just based on your workforce-size. It also depends on the nature, location, and distribution of your business.

Having OH services or specialists is not a legal requirement for businesses. But if you do require one, employers should only use services accredited by the SEQOHS (Safe, Effective, Quality Occupational Health Service) scheme.

The SEQOHS scheme will help make sure your OH services are legally compliant, as well as following the best professional standards.

What is the law on occupational health?

Every business has a legal duty when it comes to your workers' health and wellbeing. This includes providing a safe environment that prevents and minimises work-related injuries. And offers support to anyone struggling with ill-health at work.

Under the Equality Act 2010, if an employee has a disability, they're legally entitled to reasonable adjustments. These are temporary or permanent changes made to their job duties - helping to promote safe working conditions.

It's not a legal requirement for employers to offer OH assessments to workers with ill-health or disabilities. However, OH specialists can offer advice on how to deal with things like medical capability procedures.

Offering OH services also shows your length of professionalism and support for any employee with ill-health. This can work in your favour if you face disability discrimination claims at employment tribunals (ET).

Overall, OH shares a close link to overall public health. Meaning, employers will benefit from using these services to help maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Can an employee refuse occupational health?

Yes, an employee is legally allowed to refuse occupational health - that includes advice, assessments, and support altogether.

The legal marker is that employers must gain their consent before performing any type of medical-related support. If you enforce them unlawfully, the employee may raise this to legal courts.

How to manage occupational health in your workplace

Employers should have organisational-wide steps in place that offer occupational health services to any employee who may need it.

You can hire in-house OH services, or subscribe to them during emergency situations. In the end, it all leads to promoting employee health and wellbeing - as well as business success.

Let's take a look at how to manage occupational health in your workplace:

Choose physical and mental health services

The first step employers should take is deciding what type of occupational health service they'd like.

An OH service will ideally depend on whether you're dealing with physical or mental health issues. There are plenty to choose from but common OH services include:

  • Help reduce sickness absence (for both short and long-term). 
  • Support your 'fit to work' assessments (for issues like ill-health capability dismissal or ill-health retirement).
  • Suggest reasonable adjustments for specific health issues (like disability). 
  • Provide pre-placement health assessments (for new employees).
  • Offer advice on your workplace safety policy.

Include services in your occupational health policy

It's best to add your occupational health services to a written policy.

This policy will help represent your rules and requirements for every OH service you offer. Employees will have full information on what each service provides, as well as how they'll benefit from them.

A occupational health policy can include:

  • What services or assessments are offered.
  • Who controls or conducts them.
  • Whether other employees need to be informed about health issues (like line-managers or HR reps).
  • What the process is for each service or assessment.

Ensure confidentiality for medical records

When it comes to personal information, like medical records, employers must ensure confidentiality.

OH specialists should keep private communication between HR teams, as well as any health and safety managers. This will ensure personal information is safeguarded under data protection laws.

Any direct managers should avoid having 'informal' discussions with employees about personal ill-health or disability-related issues. This helps to avoid any misinformation or wrongdoing - with or without intention.

Both managers and OH specialists may request access to an employee's medical records when assisting them at work. But they're only allowed to access them with the employee's direct consent.

Make pre-employment health enquiries

Sometimes, an employer may want to know whether a potential employee has any medical or health issues they'd like to declare. But there are specific rules when it comes to pre-employment enquiries.

You can only ask employees about any health issues after you've hired them. Meaning, you cannot ask them during their interview stages, as this may lead to disability discrimination.

Ask on their first day; and whether they might need additional assistance. Remember, this should be offered for both physical and mental issues.

The best way to do this is through using pre-employment health assessments or tests. These help ensure compliance to equal opportunity laws, as well as data protection regulations.

For low-risks jobs (like office work), you can provide a simple health assessment to distinguish any issues they could face. For workplaces with high health and safety risks, you'll need to use a more extensive health assessment.

Can occupational health help deal with sickness absence?

Yes, you can use occupational health to deal with sickness absence management. This goes for both short-term and long-term sick leave.

When an employee is on long-term sick leave, they might be recovering from a serious injury or illness. Occupational health specialists may suggest reasonable adjustments leading to a healthy and smooth return.

OH specialists can also help manage any ill-health triggers connected to their work duties or environment. In the end, employers can encourage a healthy return to work - helping to save money on lost work-hours, as well as reduce sickness absence rates,

Get advice on occupational health from Peninsula

All employers have a duty to promote occupational health within their company; and ensure staff work by proper occupational safety standards.

But if you neglect this, you could end up with higher work-related illnesses, staff absenteeism, and business losses.

Peninsula offers expert advice on occupational health. Our HR team offers 24/7 HR employment advice which is available 365 days a year.

Want to find out more? Get advice from one of our HR consultants. For further support, call our telephone number 0800 029 4387

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