by Nekaelia Hutchinson
Work can be a painful exercise. Whether it is stress from duties and deadlines or tangible environmental conditions such as dust or mold, the workplace may sometimes present numerous challenges that could affect us on social, mental and physical levels.
Ensuring a good state of mind — and body — for employees resides at the heart of the Safety and Health at Work Act, which was passed in January.
Complemented by the Notification of Accidents and Occupational Diseases Act, the SHaW Act makes provision for securing health and safety. However, many persons are yet to acknowledge the link between productivity and safeguarding occupational safety and health.
Labour Officer with the Safety and Health Unit of the Ministry of Labour, Errol Goodridge, explained that employees and employers alike must take the time to understand what OSH is and how it affects work. He stressed that, with World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which will be observed on April 28, highlighting The Prevention of Occupational Diseases, there was no better time than the present to get a better grasp on OSH.
Acknowledging that the subject was a broad one, Goodridge observed that it encompasses “areas of engineering, medicine, environmental science, ergonomics, industrial hygiene … [However], some years ago the International Labour Organisation, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, defined OSH as ‘the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social wellbeing of workers in all occupations'”. In the past, OSH focused mainly on the physical wellbeing and safety of employees. However, the officer observed that “within the last three decades, the mental and social aspects have been coming to the fore. Some companies have been developing health and wellness programmes, for example, social and mental wellbeing would deal with things like stress and violence and bullying at work,” he said, noting that issues such as these have a direct impact on the way that a worker feels and works.
As occupational diseases are defined by their connection to a person’s work conditions, proving that particular physical symptoms have a work related cause is not always a simple task. Goodridge explained that an occupational disease “is a disease that is contracted as a result of exposure to risk factors at work”.
“Every work area would have risk factors…,” he added. “[They] may be chemical, they may be social, but the risk factors can impact on the worker and cause them to develop an illness… One of the problems is that in order for it to be recognised as occupational, a causal link has to be established between the disease … and exposure at work.”
Offering an example, he suggested that identifying a chemical or biological hazard as an occupational disease could be proven through an evaluation at the workplace. However, stress, respiratory illness, hearing impairment caused by noise and muscular skeletal type diseases, which could occur outside of the workplace, would be more difficult to ascertain.
Goodridge advised that in instances such as these, a full investigation conducted by a specialist would be required to make a determination, adding that the Act required both employers and medical practitioners to contact the chief labour officer if they suspected that someone was suffering from an occupational disease.
While determining the presence of such diseases may be difficult, preventing the factors which could lead to their occurrence was as simple as assessing the level of risk in the workplace. Goodridge stressed that the initial cost of ensuring employees’ health and safety could not compare to the “hidden cost to employers for not preventing occupational disease”.
He added: “It has been shown that you get reduced productivity … Workers can be home ill for long periods of time … [and] all of those costs add up… There is also a national cost through increased burden to our NIS.”
Adding that “employees are a very valuable asset”, Goodridge noted: “When you lose a good worker due to illness, [he or she is] very difficult to replace… You need to treat your workers as your most valuable asset and money invested in their health in terms of prevention, will redound to your benefit … and increase productivity at the end of the day.”
Recognising that a learning curve was involved where the SHaW Act and OSH were concerned, the he disclosed that his department was currently helping employers understand and implement the act, adding that the response thus far had been positive.
“I think that we as a nation are going into a new era in the management of safety and health… It’s interesting to see how employers and employees are taking interest,” he said.