Safety and health at work
There are well-established connections between conditions in the workplace and certain health problems. As a result, measures have been developed to protect employees from a variety of occupational disorders, and these measures are enforced through legislation, regulation, and advisory information.
In the UK, there are about 2.3 million people with an illness they believe was caused or made worse by their current or past work. An estimated 40 million working days a year are lost through work-related ill-health or injury, and there are 350 deaths a year due to accidents at work.
If you develop symptoms of ill-health or disease while at work and you suspect that your work environment might be the cause, you should talk to your supervisor or occupational health department, or to your doctor.
Reducing health and safety risks in the industrial workplace
Some occupations are inherently dangerous. If your work involves contact with heavy machinery, organic solvents, or other hazardous substances, loud noise, or extreme heat or cold, you should be aware of the dangers and be provided with protective equipment. Legislation, regulations, and guidelines now in place should reduce the risk of developing a work-related illness but they do need to be followed by both employers and employees.
Many substances in the workplace can cause occupational lung diseases. The most common of these conditions is asthma. More than 200 substances, ranging from latex in gloves to isocyanates used in paint spraying, are known to trigger the disorder. Your doctor can arrange for tests in order to identify asthma triggers. Several other lung disorders are associated with inhalation of specific particles. Occupations that carry particular risks include mining, farming, and any other work involving contact with asbestos or silica.
Substances such as detergents may irritate your skin and cause disorders such as eczema or contact dermatitis. To avoid these problems, you need to wear protective clothing and use barrier creams.
If your work involves lifting heavy loads or sitting for long periods with poor back support, you are vulnerable to back pain. It is important to make sure you have any necessary training, be aware of your posture, and try to lift heavy objects safely (see Preventing back pain).
Reducing health and safety risks in the office
Your office can be a source of health hazards, particularly if you spend much of the day sitting in an awkward position at a computer. Over 1 million people are believed to develop disorders such as lower back pain and repetitive strain injury because of their work.
- If you work at a desk, you need to think carefully about the layout of your work area, your equipment, and your working practices. Your work area should be arranged so that everything is easy to reach and use.
- Make sure you have good lighting and ventilation, and that cables are not underfoot.
- If you are working at a computer, good posture is essential to prevent back problems. You should use an adjustable chair with a stable base and with half or no arm rests so that it can go under the desk.
- The seat should be flat or tipped slightly forwards and the height of the chair should be adjusted so that your feet can rest flat on the floor.
- The chair should have a back rest that can be adjusted to support your lower back at belt level.
- You should sit with shoulders relaxed, your head in a neutral position, and your chin tucked in.
- There should be a slight arch in your lower back, and you should sit close to the desk.
- The computer monitor should be an arm's length away, and the top of the monitor should be at eye level.
- The keyboard should be kept at elbow height, and your elbows should be kept at an angle of 90 degrees.
- You should take frequent short breaks from using the keyboard and monitor, and occasionally focus on a distant object to relax your eyes.
- Some people may also benefit from equipment that is specially modified, such as an ergonomic keyboard or a larger, more supportive mouse.
Sick building syndrome is a group of symptoms sometimes reported by workers in offices. Symptoms include loss of energy, headaches, and sore throat. The cause is unknown but has been attributed to various factors, including air-conditioning, lack of natural light, poor ventilation, and dust, solvents, and ozone emitted by printers and photocopiers.
Strained relationships with your colleagues, poor job satisfaction, and difficult personal events can be causes of stress. If this is the case, you should try to raise your concerns with your line manager or relevant supervisor. You should also seek advice on managing the symptoms of stress.
Taking responsibility for health at work
In many countries, including the UK, employers are required by law to meet safety standards, monitor employees' health, offer screening if needed, and compensate workers who develop permanent health problems.
Employees should be aware of the health hazards associated with their occupation and of legally required safety practices. In the UK, both employers and employees are responsible for maintaining a safe working environment.
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