With the new health surveillance guidelines now available on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) website, there’s never been a better time to make sure you’re doing everything you can to control risks in the workplace and spot the early signs of work-related ill health.
What is health surveillance?
Health surveillance is a system of ongoing health checks. Some of these health checks are required by law for employees who are exposed to substances hazardous to health, where as others are useful for:
- detecting ill health effects at an early stage, so employers can introduce better controls to prevent them getting worse
- providing data to help employers evaluate health risks
- enabling employees to raise concerns about how work affects their health
- highlighting lapses in workplace control measures, therefore providing invaluable feedback to the risk assessment
- providing an opportunity to reinforce training and education of employees (eg. on the impact of health effects and the use of protective equipment)
Why is it needed?
- 2,000 work-related deaths in Great Britain are caused annually by past exposure to chemicals and dust.
- An estimated 1.1 million people were suffering from a work-related illness in 2011/12 – 452,000 of these were new cases developed in that year. (See our infogaphic on global safety statistics.)
- Roughly one in ten GP consultations are due to preventable work-related health problems.
Currently health surveillance is being badly targeted, meaning companies are spending money unnecessarily on employees who don’t need it, or by not providing it for those who do. It stands to reason that health surveillance, where it is needed, can lead to a healthier workforce and benefit business by reducing sick days.
Who needs to implement health surveillance?
Health surveillance is required if all the following criteria are met:
- there is an identifiable disease/adverse health effect and evidence of a link with workplace exposure
- it is likely the disease/health effect may occur
- there are valid techniques for detecting early signs of the disease/health effect and these techniques do not pose a risk to employees
In addition to this, there are also some circumstances where the law requires that the health surveillance programme should include statutory medical surveillance. Examples of these include:
- particular types of work with asbestos
- certain work with lead
- work with substances, in particular processes subject to Schedule 6 of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002
- work with ionising radiation
- work in compressed air
Once you have identified that health surveillance is needed, be clear about what sort of help is needed.
Simple checks can be carried out by a suitably trained responsible person, for example, by the administration of simple health questionnaires. However, for complex risks such as working with asbestos, lead or with ionising radiations – or where clinical expertise is needed, a competent health professional will need to be employed. A suitable provider should be chosen carefully, being properly qualified and have experience of the particular industry or occupation and its hazards.
Finally, it is important to remember that health surveillance is not a substitute for other actions such as improved processes or control of exposure. It should be the final safeguard after all other sensible control measures to protect workers have been applied.