Health increases wealth

25 January 2013

Occupational health is often poorly understood yet if tackled early and systematically it can save a company in the long run.Tim McManan-Smith reports from Health & Safety '10 South in Sandown Park where Neil Budworth,Corpo

Occupational health is often poorly understood yet if tackled early and systematically it can save a company in the long run.Tim McManan-Smith reports from Health & Safety '10 South in Sandown Park where Neil Budworth,Corporate Health and Safety Manager at E.ON spoke about 'The role of the health and safety professional in occupational health'

Although many organisation neglect health compared to safety, estimates of its costs to the UK economy of health related worklessness is in the region of £100bn! This is the annual budget of the NHS, the GDP of Portugal. "The disaster at Buncefield cost £864m meaning that occupational heath issues are the equivalent of over two Buncefields every week - forever", states Budworth.

In the UK 2m people suffer from work related ill health, 2.65m people claim incapacity benefit and 40m working days are lost each year. "The problem with occupational heath is that is happens gradually and humans are bad at spotting slow changes that are not in the centre of their vision," says Budworth. Safety on the other hand is obvious due the immediate danger that workers may be under while performing certain tasks.

Although there are only 1500 occupational physicians and 2195 members of the society of occupational health nurses there are 35,000 members of IOSH and 100,000 NEBOSH certificate holders. It is at the level of the health and safety manager that the swiftest and most effective response can occur.

Budworth comments that "These problems are not medically 'severe' and most of us experience at least one of them at times.

There is usually no serious disease or lasting harm and most episodes settle quickly, even if symptoms may recur. Often people with these problems could remain at work or soon return yet if this is the case why do so many people become long term disabled? How do we stop them ending up on the scrap heap?" The chance of returning to work following a long term absence falls dramatically the longer that the person if off work.

At 3 Months 75-90 % At 6 Months 50-60 % At 9 Months 25-30 % Over 1 year < 10% After 2 years the individual is more likely to retire or die than return to work! The key to the problem is to pick up the signs early on and offer simple fixes or refer them on rapidly to a more qualified professional. Health in the workplace is a problem and it has to be kept on the agenda and be included in workplace assessments. It is cost effective if it is dealt with early on.

Budworth says that a company must also make sure it has an attendance management policy, hold regular case conferences and set up access to advice in advance.

One of the problems with subtle health problems such as stress and bullying is that managers have no idea of the severity of the effect and if there is any problem at all. There is the perception that they may be using it as an excuse not to work. The difficulty is that a "Doctor's sick note is essentially self certification with someone else holding the pen", says Budworth. The introduction of fit notes in April this year should help with this matter. The Doctor can offer the option that the patient "may be fit for work". They will also be able to suggest way in which a return to work may be facilitated i.e. with changes to working conditions and tasks.

Action that can be taken Prevention: Communication Assessment Engagement Education Evaluation Early action Support During absence Advocate Communication channel Chase modifications Make case for recommendations Keep cases on the agenda Investigate Review Rehabilitation Liaison Adaptations Risk assessment Keeping the issue on the agenda Support - for management team In summary Budworth says that there is a "Strong cost and moral argument for getting involved in health". He then went on to cover common myths (see box above) and to suggest that health and safety managers can specifically support: Policy, case conferences, approaches for MSDs / Stress / Long term cases and difficult cases.

It seems that if an employee has constant engagement with work when they are off and work is able to be flexible to accommodate the person into suitable tasks the worker will return more quickly and cost the company less in the long run. It is also worth noting that in within the common myths is the fact that the Doctor's word is not final. Resources and more information can be found in his presentation slides available at yevents10/februaryday1 As well as being corporate health and safety manager at E.ON Neil is visiting professor at Loughborough University and former IOSH president.