Appreciation of factors affecting health and safety at work (including the control of substances hazardous to health)
The workplace has bearing on health because of the multitude of hazards which exist in many working environments. Those hazards may relate to a wide range of physical, chemical and biological agents. Many aspects are regulated (e.g.
the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations), while in other areas guidance and approved Codes of Practice help to maintain good working practices. Positive aspects of the occupational
environment for health are briefly considered in the next section (9).
Key definitions and terms
|Health and safety||Preventing people from being harmed or becoming ill by work by taking the right precautions; providing a satisfactory working environment|
|Hazard||Anything that may cause harm e.g. chemicals, electricity, working from ladders, an open drawer|
|Risk assessment (for health and safety)||A careful examination of the potential causes of harm in the workplace, so as to inform the implementation of reasonable measures to reduce health risks|
|Stress||The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them|
Workplace health, safety and welfare
|The workplace||The workplace is an environment in which most adults spend a substantial fraction of their time. It has the potential to have both positive and negative influences on their health and well-being
– sometimes with lasting effects. Factors influencing health include the following:
|Workplace factors affecting health||
|Welfare||Facilities for the welfare of workers and visitors include
|Specific hazards||Many work environments contain sources of hazardous substances (chemicals, dust, fumes, biological agents), which may cause exposure by inhalation, dermal absorption, splashing into eyes, or
ingestion. These are covered by specific legislation (see COSHH below).
One of the most common forms of workplace injury arises from slips and trips. Care to remove tripping hazards is especially important where there is public access. Falls from height, especially off ladders, is one of the major
Musculoskeletal disorders relating to workplace activities are common, and include injuries from manual handling (heavy lifting etc – a major cause of days off work) and repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Display screen equipment (e.g.
Asbestos is the largest single cause of work related fatal disease and ill health in Great Britain, though it is now mostly the result of past exposures.
Powered hand tools etc can cause ‘vibration syndromes’, and vibration from a vehicle or machine passing through the seat can cause or aggravate whole back pain. Noise can damage hearing, but it can also be a serious nuisance
Most electricity deaths are caused by contact with overhead or underground power cables. Non-fatal shocks can cause severe and permanent injury.
Pressure systems – systems containing a fluid under pressure (e.g. pressure cookers, boilers, steam heating systems) – account for about 150 incidents / year in England, mainly due to equipment failure through poor design, incorrect
Radiation risks are usually strictly controlled. Ionizing radiation risks may arise from exposure to x-rays or radionuclides e.g. medical imaging, as well as from radon gas from the ground. Also includes damage and cancer risk
|Stress||Stress is an over-used and imprecisely defined term. However, it is clear what most people mean by it, and there is a large body of research that shows a link between markers of stress and
subsequent ill health. The HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.’ It can be tackled in similar way to any other form of workplace hazard – by
identifying contributing causes and attempting to reduce them. Factors that often appear important include:
Responsibilities and the law
|HSE||In England, health and safety within factories, farms and building sites is enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and in offices, shops, hotels, and catering and leisure
facilities by local authorities.
|Regulation||Three main forms of regulation are used:
|Legislation||In recent years, more health and safety law has originated from Europe as proposals and Directives of the European Commission, but the main basis of British legislation is:
- Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which sets out the general duties which employers have towards employees and members of the public, and employees have to themselves and to each other ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (the Management Regulations), which make more explicit what is required of employers under the Health and Safety at Work Act
Employers have responsibility to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their workforce (with a written policy if they have more than five employees), to assess risks, to ensure implementation of necessary protection measures, to provide
Employees have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others, to cooperate with an employer on health and safety matters, including by use of protection equipment. Employees can refuse to do
|Risk assessment||Much of health and safety is based on the principle of risk assessment (note, the use of the term risk assessment here should be distinguished from its use to imply quantification of risk
(similar to health impact assessment) as described in section 10 below).
The law does not expect elimination of risk, but it requires that people are protected as far as ‘reasonably practicable’. The principal elements of a risk assessment are:
(1) To identify the hazards;
Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH)
|COSHH||The law requires employers to control exposure to hazardous substances – chemicals, dusts and fumes – that may cause toxic effects, infections, cancers, allergic responses, asphyxiation
etc. The principal law is the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) (as amended).
These regulations cover substances that are dangerous to health, including biological agents, substances with workplace exposure limits, pesticides, medicines, cosmetics and substances produced in chemical processes. Asbestos,
COSHH sets out eight steps that employers (and sometimes employees) must take. They are:
- HSE. Workplace health, safety and welfare. HSE Books, ISBN 978 0 7176 6277 7. Available online: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg244.pdf
- Health and safety at work website
- Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
© Dr Paul Wilkinson 2009