What is occupational health and why is it important?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Occupational health (OH) aims to promote an effective relationship between an employee's health and the workplace. Having access to OH services is beneficial for both the employee and the organisation they work for. Learning more about OH and its uses can help you understand how it contributes to a healthy workplace. In this article, we answer ‘What is occupational health?', learn how it operates and explore its importance to both employees and organisations.

What is occupational health?

When answering ‘What is occupational health?', it's valuable to understand its importance and how it helps employees in the workplace. OH deals with how a job may affect an employee's health, which may then affect their work. Most companies have realised that employee management is just as vital as managing finances and other important business aspects. Creating a healthy workplace environment may be necessary for improving an employee's OH. This can contribute to the growth and success of both the employee and the organisation.

Benefits of OH

The following are some benefits of OH:

  • aids company growth

  • improves employees' working capacity

  • helps the employees' psychological and physical well-being

  • encourages a healthy workplace

  • enhances employees' productivity

  • aids employee retention

Who is an OH professional?

An OH professional is someone a company employs to identify and attend to the health needs of its employees. A company may choose to work with an external OH provider or hire a professional full-time. The choice depends on the business specifications, such as the size and the location of the organisation.

The role of an OH professional is significant in many organisations. They help assess staff and determine who is a better fit to work from home based on health grounds. They also decide whether it's safe for an employee to return to work and whether any adjustments are necessary for the workplace.

Related: What is the importance of confidentiality? (With examples)

What do OH professionals do?

The following are some of the duties of an OH professional's job role:

Examining the workplace for potential health and safety hazards

OH professionals ensure that workplaces adhere to health and safety standards. It's one of the primary aspects of an OH role. OH personnel achieve this by making periodic inspections and interviewing managers and other staff.

Assessing employee and management attitudes to improve wellness standards

It's important to share new information regarding potential OH hazards as it becomes available. This helps employees understand the potential risks and aids them in putting prevention and control measures in place. Similarly, assessing employees' attitudes towards wellness standards can help to ensure their effectiveness.

Conducting interviews to identify existing health issues

Typically, it's not possible to eradicate every health concern in the workplace because of technological and economic constraints. As a result, monitoring employees' health is important. This process usually involves a variety of medical assessments that assess health problems that may occur as a result of an employee's exposure to OH hazards.

For example, if a workplace has a lot of noise, an OH professional may test the employees' hearing to determine if any staff member suffers from hearing loss. If they do, they may require treatment and care to avoid developing a more serious condition. It may then be necessary for the workplace to focus on preventive measures to protect other employees from developing similar conditions.

Creating guidelines to help employees live healthier lives

Another aspect of OH is the creation of programmes that help beyond protecting employees against workplace hazards and instead target the personal health habits of staff. For example, these programmes might include health education and stress management. By addressing these issues, OH providers try to improve an employee's overall health by changing their lifestyle and reducing factors such as drug, cigarette and alcohol intake and improving physical exercise and diet.

Related: 13 daily routines examples to help you stay healthy and calm

Enforcing existing OH and safety regulations

OH professionals often collaborate with those working in health, safety and environment management. They may advise management on how to enforce existing or new OH rules and safety regulations. This can help to influence employees' decisions and attitudes towards safety rules in the workplace.

Promoting rehabilitation

Another important duty OH professionals have is facilitating employees' rehabilitation and their return to work. This is crucial in industrialised organisations with a high incidence of occupational accidents or places where a significant part of the working population is ageing. These professionals play a fundamental role in the employee referral process by ensuring that employees receive treatment as soon as possible. OH personnel also communicate regularly with those treating employees to determine when it's appropriate for them to return to work.

Assessing prospective employees' health

Prospective employees may undergo a pre-employment health assessment before joining an organisation. This assessment aims to determine whether a person is physically and mentally fit to perform a certain job and helps to ensure the safety of their health or the health of others. OH professionals may conduct different assessments to determine if an employee is a good fit for the company.

Recruiting OH personnel

Companies can find OH providers via the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM). SOM is the largest, globally recognised professional body of individuals interested in and qualified to work in OH services. Companies can also find OH providers through trusts or the Safe Effective Quality Occupational Health Service. There are different professionals depending on their area of expertise, location and experience level.

Who provides OH services?

OH is a broad field and includes certified medical professionals from different disciplines. There are many different specialities in OH, including:

  • occupational hygienists

  • occupational physiotherapists

  • safety engineers

Related: How to become an occupational health nurse (with 7 steps)

OH and confidentiality in the workplace

OH personnel often work closely with HR departments and health and safety managers. It's important that both employees and management are able to approach OH professionals to discuss health issues comfortably and discretely, as these discussions determine how fit the person is for their duties. Some organisations create standards and rules that guide how managers and employees can access the health information of others. Below are some examples of regulations for employees, management and OH providers to follow:

  • Employees are aware that OH personnel may document any conversations they have.

  • It's an offence for an OH professional to feign a health issue to dismiss a staff member from work.

  • It's an offence for staff to liaise with OH personnel to disclose the health records of an employee, especially when the sickness doesn't affect the efficiency of their work output.

  • OHS get the approval of an employee before disclosing any of their information to other employees or management.

Related: Guide: How to build trust in the workplace in 13 steps

Guidelines for OH operations in the workplace

Below are some guidelines that aid OH operations at work:

Medical confidentiality

It's essential that medical practitioners (who also register under a professional body) maintain medical confidentiality. OH personnel can only share health information with third parties if they have the employee's consent. If an employee decides not to give their consent to share certain health information, this may affect the employee's capability to work. For example, a knee injury could affect an employee's safety when operating a vehicle. When situations like this occur, OH personnel may tell the employer directly that the employee is unfit for work.

Separation of records

It's important that OH professionals separate employee health records from their work records and only allow authorised medical professionals to access them. Any health officer that requests such health information can sign a confidentiality agreement to protect the employee. Typically, it's not permissible for other employees in the workplace to access their colleague's health information, and anyone who breaks these rules may face disciplinary action.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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