Remembering the ‘health’ in ‘health and safety’

by Alex on October 21, 2014

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When discussing health and safety, most people have an understandable tendency to focus on safety. However, the Health and Safety Executive states that all workers have a right to work in places where risks to their health and safety—not just safety—are controlled.

That’s one of the reasons why the HSE recently ran an inspection initiative focused on health risks, and why EU-OSHA’s Healthy Workplaces campaign this year is focused on managing workplace stress, an issue that’s not often addressed in discussions about workplace health and safety. Government organisations are starting to pay more attention to workplace health, and so should you.

Health AND Safety

Putting measures in place to prevent a fall from a building or an electric shock feels more immediately important than taking steps to decrease the likelihood of health issues later in life. But health and safety isn’t just about keeping your team alive—its about doing the right thing by the law and by your employees, too. And beyond that, long-term injuries, even if they’re not as life-threatening as having a limb caught in a machine or a severe chemical burn, can cause a loss of productivity that could be costly to your company.

Of course, the focus on health can’t come at the cost of safety precautions—both have to be put in place and work in tandem to keep workers as safe as possible while working. It can seem like a lot of work, but being well-organised and learning to identify common workplace health hazards will help you stay compliant and keep your team healthy.

Some Common Workplace Health Hazards

There’s plenty of material available for identifying workplace safety hazards (for example, last week we published a post about electrical hazards). But learning about health hazards is a bit trickier. Some of them, like construction dust and asbestos, have received quite a bit of attention throughout the years, but there are many others that fly under the radar.


For example, if workers are using poor lifting technique, they can pull muscles or strain joints in their back, which can easily leave someone unable to work for days, if not weeks. And repeated injuries to the back can cause long-term problems that require expensive and time-consuming treatments. Even using correct lifting form with objects that are too heavy for a single person to carry can cause injuries.

Long-term exposure to high levels of noise without adequate protection can result in hearing loss, sometimes quite rapidly, which can impact job performance and require treatment. Tinnitus, the medical name for a persistent ringing in the ears, can be contracted from this sort of noise exposure, and it cannot be cured—once it starts, it never goes away.

Much like noise, exposure to high levels of intense light can cause retinal damage that leaves workers with visual problems that may manifest throughout the rest of their lives. This can happen when using an arc welder if the proper precautions aren’t taken to protect the eyes from the very intense light of the arc.

Did you know that repeated exposure to vibration can cause health problems? After years of using intensely vibrating tools, like grinders or road saws, workers can experience pain in the hands and arms, reduced circulation in the fingers, tingling, numbness, and loss of grip strength, all things that could seriously affect a worker on the job and throughout the rest of their life.

Many contractors work with hazardous substances, such as fluorides, chlorinated hydrocarbons, mercury, and cadmium, that can have very serious effects on workers after extended exposure, and sometimes much more rapidly. For example, a welding arc can create nitrogen oxides, which can cause chest pain and pulmonary edema, the buildup of fluid in the lungs. Toxic, corrosive, and irritating substances can enter the body through the air, through mucous membranes like the eyes, and sometimes even through the skin.


Think you and your employees are safe if you don’t work at a construction site? Think again: even desk workers can be at risk of health issues if their workspaces aren’t properly ergonomic. Spending a lot of time at a desk on a computer comes with its own risks, including carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, and neck pain. While these sorts of health hazards are less likely to cause lifelong difficulties, they can certainly result in decreased productivity.

And, as EU-OSHA is pointing out, stress can be a health risk, too. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to stress is correlated with things like atherosclerosis and heart disease. And stressed employees could get ill more often, putting a dent in productivity. Although it takes a long time for these sorts of conditions to show up, it’s worth thinking about when you’re setting the tone for your workplace.

Be Health-Conscious

It’s easy to focus on the ‘safety’ part of ‘health and safety’, but keeping an eye out for health hazards is just as important. It can be easy to overlook little things like an employee lifting with their back instead of their legs, using high-vibration tools for hours on end, or even having a poorly placed computer monitor, but making a point to be aware of risks like these will help ensure that you’re meeting your obligations under health and safety law.

HSE and EU-OSHA are putting an emphasis on managing health risks in the workplace, and you can bet that it’s a theme that will be continued into the future. So start taking steps now to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support a healthy workplace and lifestyle for your employees and coworkers!

Image credits: EU OSHA, Philip Male via flickr, Juan A. via flickr.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

James F. McClellan October 21, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Your comment on stress rang a bell with me. My job was high stress as are many, but it doesn’t have to be. Management can lead employees to be productive without overbearing stress if the corporate culture supports it. After retiring I worked for another company that was much more “Laid Back” in their attitudes. However the employees were dedicated to performing their best, sort of a reverse reward for the management they received.
Reminds me of a survey of a major manufacturer’s retirees several years back. Employees who retired at age 55, lived on average to age 76. Employees who retired at age 65, lived on average to age 67. You can’t help but believe that the stress of their jobs shortened their lives.


HANDSHQ.COM October 28, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Thanks James – it would be interesting to see any studies that show the correlation between stress at work and premature death. I used to work in construction as an onsite manager, I always found the best solution for stress was to have a passion about what you do, to always learn from your mistakes and tackle issues in order of importance when issues did arise. Having a zen like approach to highly stressful job worked well for me.

I also learnt quite quickly that you couldn’t push construction site workers past 8 hours onsite, they undertake a physical job, and every hour extra they work over 8 hours would lead to productivity decline over the long term. I often set up working hours of 7am – 3pm, let them go home an hour early to relax but then ask them to come in every other Saturday to catch up on the lost hour. Seem to help our productivity no end!

If you have any sources do share, it would be interesting to see.


Cesar Candelaria October 22, 2014 at 4:39 pm

That´s right, unfortunatelly is common that EHS professionals y company´s managers and director do not put attention on occupational health.
I want suggest to you an alternative stress control program with homeopathy, no risks to another organs, no risks od secondary effects, life quality better, perfomance improvement, and another workers benefits, health and safety. Comgratulations for your article and concern about employees health


HANDSHQ.COM October 28, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Thanks Cesar, an interesting point about Homeopathy that I hadn’t considered before.


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