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Health & safety matters: Getting under the skin of worker health

Safety hogs the headlines, but long-term worker health issues deserve more urgent attention, says Bob Towse, head of technical and safety at the HVCA
THE health and safety culture in the UK is primarily based around accident prevention. However, there is a growing determination across the building services sector to face up to broader work-related health issues that require a longer term and more strategic approach.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is running a series of initiatives designed to focus workers on preventative measures to safeguard their general health and to encourage employers to put health surveillance programmes in place to detect problems before they occur.

Work related dermatitis or eczema, for example, is coming under the spotlight and not before time. This is an extremely painful condition and many people end up having to give up work completely because of it. British businesses lose millions of pounds each year in sickness, absence and retraining costs and many are forced to make substantial compensation payments to victims.

'There are serious consequences for all from failing to control work-related dermatitis,' says the HSE's Bob Rajan. 'These can include sickness absence and loss of productivity from employees, and the possibility of court action for their employer, along with the associated adverse publicity and use of valuable NHS resources.

'Work-related dermatitis can have chemical, biological, physical and mechanical causes and also result from work that involves having wet hands for long periods,' he explains. 'Chemical causes include paints, solvents, dusts, hair shampoos, and cleaning chemicals; biological ones can be plants, flowers, bacteria and fungus, while physical causes include vibration, radiation and extremes of temperature and humidity. Mechanical causes include abrasion.'

Health-related issues are clearly complex and often involve a series of factors, but a series of fairly straightforward check-ups will allow qualified medical people to identify the warning signs before they become serious. As well as dermatitis, employers need to be mindful of the impact of other conditions like vibration white finger, hearing loss and asbestosis.

To meet this challenge requires a complete culture change across the industry and a change in behaviour from both worker and employer. We have to introduce a system where regular check-ups, such as scheduled lung and ear tests, become standard practice so any potential problem is detected and dealt with early.

It is not enough for an employer to provide a 'safe' workplace where tripping and falling hazards are removed or controlled. We now expect management teams to look much further ahead and take responsibility for all aspects of their workforce health and safety.

There is a powerful moral argument for adopting this approach but it also makes sound business sense. The opportunity to nip problems in the bud can only help to improve productivity and reduce compensation and treatment costs. The ongoing positive impact on the morale of workers, who feel cared for and valued, may be harder to measure, but is equally valuable.

It is much easier to detect and cope with hazards related to people falling off roofs and ladders. Work-related sickness requires a bit more thought and a wider range of strategies, but the extra effort in tackling it with a properly thought through testing and treatment strategy will pay off many times over.

For more information contact Bob Towse on 020 7313 4928 (btowse@hvca.org.uk)
1 June 2007

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