What is an occupational health assessment and how can it help?

A hand picking up a wooden block with a health symbol printed on the front.

In the workplace, looking after employees health is critical and with occupational health assessments, employers can understand the issues an employee is suffering and the adjustments needed to support them in the workplace.

• Introduction to occupational health.
• Explaining the different types of occupational health.
• Explaining an occupational health assessment.
• What are the benefits of occupational health services.
• What can you expect from an occupational health assessment.
• Can an employee refuse an assessment?
• Access to occupational health services.
• Legislation and occupational health.
• Insurance and occupational health at work.
• How to create a health and safety at work policy.

Introduction to occupational health at work

Occupational health at work focuses on the health and wellbeing of workers.

It can help employers and employees to overcome physical and mental health issues, highlight potential reasonable adjustments that might be required for disabled people, and help to mitigate occupational risks and hazards.

Occupational health at work can be provided in-house or it can be outsourced.

An employer may look to use occupational health to help:

• when an employee is struggling with their physical or mental health.
• control risks to employee wellbeing such as: bullying, harassment, and stress due to work pressures.
• make the correct decisions regarding reasonable adjustments for disabled people in their workplace.
• when an employee is returning to work after a long-term absence such as sickness or maternity leave.
• reduce the number of sick days taken by staff.
• maintain compliance with workplace health and safety regulations.
• Assess if a prospective new employee is fit for work.

What are the different types of occupational health?

There are many types of occupational health, including: safety, hygiene, psychology, and ergonomics (people's efficiency in their working environment), to name but a few.

Common occupational health workplace assessments include:

• risk assessments which look at the potential hazards that could cause injury or sickness and employee absence as a result
• ergonomic assessments which assess seating suitability, posture, desk setup and can help to prevent repetitive strain injury (RSI) and other aches and pains such as back pain and shoulder and neck ache. This can include display and screen assessments as part of the desk setup assessment.
• evaluation of the workplace for disabled access.
• the promotion of metal and physical wellbeing at work.
• sickness absence management.
• workplace immunisations and health tests (more relevant since the coronavirus pandemic).

What is an occupational health assessment?

An occupational health assessment is a medical examination of an employee by an occupational health professional e.g. a qualified clinician, an OH doctor or nurse, or other medical adviser.

As a small business you are unlikely to have an in-house occupational health professional or HR professional, so you may wish to use the services of a third-party organisation. You can find NHS occupational health providers near you on the NHS Health at Work website.

The aim of an occupational health assessment is to advise employers on the employee's health and wellbeing and make recommendations regarding potential adjustments that could be considered to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for the employee.

It can also be used to assess somebody's fitness to work or a prospective employee.

The purpose of the occupational health assessment is to check the physical and mental health of an employee and to avoid any work-related injuries.

Why are benefits of occupational health assessments?

In the workplace, issues such as work overload, stress, discrimination, inequality, bullying, feeling undervalued, can all contribute to poor mental health, low self-esteem, and ultimately a heightened risk of workplace absence.

Workplace absences can have a detrimental impact on the welfare of your team and on your production and service deadlines. All of which can have a huge impact on your top line. Therefore, it pays to invest in the welfare of your staff via an occupational health and wellbeing programme.

What can you expect in an occupational health assessment?

There are different types of assessment that cover occupational health, whether it be a fitness for work assessment or an ergonomics desk assessment. Prior to the consultation, the assessing clinician will receive a referral form from an employer stating the reason for the referral. This will include any relevant background information to the situation (e.g. absence record) and usually a brief description of the role and responsibilities of the employee.

The occupational health professional will ask questions about the employee’s health, which could include any underlying conditions, disability, menopause, and any other issues that might require reasonable adjustments to their working environment.

For an ergonomics assessment, you might be asked to submit photos of your desk or work area prior to the consultation. The health professional will then likely ask you if you are experiencing any discomfort (e.g. in your neck if working at a desk). As examples, they could also ask questions including: if your screen is set to a certain height, if your chair has arms and if they can fit under your desk, if your legs have clear space under your desk so you can rest your feet flat on the ground.

Any assessment will result in a report to the employer which will contain what has been discussed and any recommendations for improvements.

Can an employee refuse an occupational health assessment?

Employees have the right to refuse an occupational health assessment, however if they do refuse consent for the assessment then the employer will have to make any management decisions without any facts as a basis. This could result in incorrect action, or worse, no action at all.

Access to occupational health services

Research conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, conducted in Great Britain between 24th September and 8th October 2020, found that only 51% of employees’ questions had access to occupational health services. Those most likely to benefit worked in the public sector or for large private sector organisations (2).

If there are so many employees in the UK who do not have occupational health support in their workplace, is it any wonder that there are an estimated 36.8 million working days of productivity lost each year due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries? (3)

Does legislation cover occupational health and safety?

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is the primary legislation that covers occupational health and safety in Great Britain. It is sometimes referred to as HSWA, the HSW Act, the 1974 Act or HASAWA.

Another piece of legislation that is no less relevant is the Equality Act 2010. The Act states: “Where someone meets the definition of a disabled person in the Equality Act 2010 (the Act) employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to any elements of the job which place a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people. Employers are only required to make adjustments that are reasonable.”

Insurance and occupational health at work

Some industry sectors are more acutely aware of the need for occupational health than others, simply because they are more stringently regulated and therefore compelled to provide occupational health services to their staff. These sectors include manufacturing, construction, the energy sector, utilities, wholesale, logistics, and transport.

Obvious hazards include vibrations from operating machinery, exposure to caustic substances, sustained and constantly elevated levels of noise, slip and trip and fall hazards, sharp objects, injury risks from lifting heavy or awkwardly shaped objects.

All these risks and many more are why it is important that your business carries the right types of business insurance policies with adequate levels of cover, including:

• Employers’ liability insurance – a legal requirement, as per the Employers Liability Act (1969) if you employ anyone.
• Public liability insurance – to cover legal costs and compensation claims if a member of the public suffers an injury or damage to their property because of your business.
• Commercial combined insurance – typically tailored to large organisations, a commercial combined insurance policy can include employers’ liability insurance, public liability insurance, product liability insurance, and directors and officers insurance, to provide all-round protection for your business if an employee or member of the public makes a compensation claim against you.
• Occupational personal accident insurance - A policy that is probably more relevant to self-employed professionals, but if you're unable to work as a result of an injury sustained at work (or travelling to and from work), occupational personal accident insurance will pay you weekly benefits (or a cash lump sum) to help support your income.

How to create a workplace occupational health policy

Workplace health and safety policies are fundamental for protecting employees. By law, if you employ five or more people, you must document a health and safety policy.

If you employ less than 5 staff, then you still need a health and safety policy, but it can be verbally communicated to employees or others who may be affected by your business activities.

Organisations must comply with these regulations to reduce the risk of injury and ill health and the subsequent the negative impacts of sickness absence on your organisation.

If you do not have an occupational health policy, then you could start by including a few key information points:

1. Statement of intent – Simply state your general policy regarding health and safety at work. Include your commitment to managing health and safety and what your policy aims are. The employer (most senior person in the company) should sign it and review it regularly.
2. Responsibilities for health and safety – Names and positions held of those responsible for health and safety in your business.
3. Arrangements for health and safety – Details of the practical arrangements that you have in place to enable you to achieve the aims of your policy.

You find out more in-depth advice as to how to put your health and safety policy together, as well as pdf templates, on the HSE website.

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