When talking to employers and employees I am often surprised by how many clearly overlook the impact of work on the long term health of the workforce. Most but not all appreciate that putting a hand into a machine that’s running is likely to cause an injury but not so many would think about the risks from the chemicals and noise in their workplace or the potential risks from working at a computer (DSE).
It seems that because these risks are not so easy to define, they are subsequently forgotten about or not properly considered. Speaking to another health & safety professional last week I suggested that around 90% of employees do not understand the risks of the chemicals that they work with. He challenged that the risks from acids would be obvious to all; to which I agreed. However, when I asked how many would recognise the risks from caustic substances; it was accepted that most probably would not understand the same level of damage would occur. This demonstrates that unless there is an immediate impact then it’s less likely that suitable action would be taken.
In the case of many of the hazardous substances used in the workplace the impact on health is not usually immediate … this same scenario applies to exposure to potentially damaging levels of noise or to developing RSI type health problems when working on DSE. The negative impact on your employees health is likely to be developed over a prolonged period; sometimes months and often through years of exposure.
So what can be done about this? I believe the starting point has to come from completing effective risk assessments, if done properly these should steer your business to both look at how robust your controls are and identify any training needs. If you fail to address the importance of training then it’s likely that any controls you have in place are going to be ignored by your employees.
Some of the workplaces I go into scare me not because of the health risks that are there but because of the apparent lack of appreciation of the workers. Only recently, when carrying out an audit for a new client, I spoke to some of the workers and asked why they weren’t wearing eye protection when working with hazardous chemicals; the reply was because they had not had any problems in the past. The chemicals in use could easily lead to a loss of sight if a splash went into the eye; yet the manager led by example – a bad example because he wore no eye protection. Others in the factory did not wear hearing protection and the noise levels were clearly very loud.
I urge all the businesses we work with to think beyond the obvious and look at the long term damage their operations may be causing; because it’s only by doing this that can we be confident of keeping the workforce safe and healthy.