At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a lot of fear largely due to the uncertainty of dealing with a new disease that was highly contagious and had no cure. With the number of infections and death toll rising daily, everyone continued to be afraid. In the middle of the tight restrictions and the government order to stay indoors, some workers tagged essential services were still expected to function. A lot of my colleagues actually tested positive for COVID -19 and recovered after a while. More than ever, I realized the huge occupational hazard doctors faced every day. But it’s not only doctors, it’s almost everyone. A lot of workers face some form of occupational risk or hazard at work. This is what occupational safety and health are all about.
WHAT IS OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH?
Occupational safety and health, also commonly referred to as occupational health or occupational safety, is a multidisciplinary field concerned with the safety, health, and welfare of people at their workplace.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational health is a field that deals with all aspects of health and safety in the workplace and has a strong focus on primary prevention of hazards. Health has been defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”
Occupational health is a multidisciplinary field of healthcare concerned with enabling an individual to undertake their occupation, in the way that causes the least harm to their health. It aligns with the promotion of health and safety at work, which is concerned with preventing harm from hazards in the workplace.
WHY OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH?
The main focus in occupational health is on three objectives:
- The maintenance and promotion of workers’ health and working capacity.
- The improvement of work environment and work to become conducive to safety and health
- Development of work organizations and working cultures in a way that supports health and safety at work and also promotes a positive social environment and smooth operation to enhance productivity.
SOURCES OF OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS
Although work provides many economic benefits, a lot of unsafe working conditions (workplace hazards) are also risky to the health and safety of people at work.
The sources of occupational hazards include chemicals, biological agents, physical factors, adverse ergonomic conditions, allergens, etc.
They are broadly grouped into:
- Physical hazards: Physical factors affect many people in the workplace. Occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related injury in the United States, with 22 million workers exposed to hazardous noise levels at work and about $242 million spent yearly on worker’s compensation for hearing loss disability.
Falls are also a common cause of occupational injuries and fatalities, especially in construction, extraction, transportation, healthcare, and building cleaning and maintenance.
Machines that have moving parts, sharp edges, hot surfaces, and other hazards that can crush, burn, cut, shear, stab, strike or wound workers if used unsafely also pose a problem.
- Biological hazards (biohazards) like infectious microorganisms such as viruses and toxins produced by those organisms such as anthrax. Biohazards affect workers in many industries; influenza, for example, affects a large number of workers. Outdoor workers, including farmers, landscapers, and construction workers, are particularly exposed to numerous biohazards, including animal bites and stings, poisonous plants, and diseases transmitted through animals such as the West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Health care workers, including veterinary health workers, are exposed to blood-borne pathogens and many infectious diseases.
- Chemicals: Dangerous chemicals can pose a chemical hazard in the workplace. There are many classifications of hazardous chemicals, including neurotoxins(toxic to the nervous system), immune agents, dermatologic agents(skin toxicity), carcinogens(that can cause cancer), reproductive toxins(that may affect reproductive ability), systemic toxins, asthmagens (that can trigger asthma attacks or make a person asthmatic), pneumoconiotic agents(which are bad for the lungs when inhaled), and sensitizers. Authorities such as regulatory agencies set occupational exposure limits to control the risk of chemical damage on workers.
- Psychosocial hazards include risks to the mental and emotional well-being of workers, such as feelings of job insecurity, long work hours, and poor work-life balance, etc.
HOW TO ENSURE OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY
To ensure occupational safety and health, it is necessary to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths, as well as the suffering and financial hardship these events can cause for workers, their families, and employers.
This requires a proactive approach to managing workplace safety and health. Traditional approaches whereby problems are addressed only after a worker is injured or becomes sick, a new standard is published, or an outside inspection finds a problem that must be fixed. This is not good enough.
The WHO recommends practices that recognize that finding and fixing unsafe working conditions before they cause injury or illness is a far more effective approach. Implementing these recommended practices also brings other benefits for the employers and employees.
Safety and health practices help to:
- Prevent workplace injuries and illnesses
- Improve compliance with laws and regulations
- Reduce costs, including significant reductions in workers’ compensation premiums
- Engage workers
- Enhance their social responsibility goals
- Increase productivity and enhance overall business operations.
The details of safety practices vary from one profession to another and the peculiarities of location and the type of work being done may come into play. However, both employers and employees have a role to play in ensuring safety at work. Work does indeed have its economic importance, but it is important to always remember that health is wealth, so, safety first.