What is occupational health?

Occupational health (OH) is a branch of medicine that focuses on preventing work-induced illnesses and injuries and promoting wellbeing in the workplace. It originates from the findings of the 17th century Dr. Bernardino Rammazini, who documented a causal relationship between his mineworker patient’s exposure to toxins and their illnesses.

Occupational health aims to build a positive relationship between people and their work. It nurtures this reciprocal relationship through:

  • Ensuring safety in the workplace
  • Providing onsite emergency care
  • Recognizing and preventing work-induced illness and injury
  • Catering to employee health and wellbeing
  • Assessing employee fitness (when necessary)
  • Incorporating an ergonomic process

Why should HR leaders care about occupational health?

Occupational health contributes to a high return on investment. Through addressing health risks in the workplace, OH can promote: 

  • Presenteeism
  • Lower healthcare costs
  • Engagement
  • Productivity 
  • Performance
  • Retention
  • Company reputation

Health risks, unlike safety risks, often cause damage that is only noticeable over an extended period. For example, employees exposed to asbestos usually demonstrate a slow decline in health over the decades. Though the damage may not always be immediately apparent, employers in many countries, including the UK and US, have an ethical and statutory obligation to take precautions to protect people’s health at work.

What can HR leaders do to support occupational health in the workplace?

These practices can help HR leaders implement and uphold occupational health:

  • Outline the workplace risks. HR leaders can facilitate collaboration between a team of employees and the employer to identify and assess work-related health risks. When each team member contributes their knowledge, experience, and perspective, they can collectively minimize workplace health hazards. 
  • Get feedback. People may notice unhealthy or dangerous practices that their employer may have failed to notice. Companies can survey employees to glean essential information to improve health and safety at work. Additionally, managers and employees can engage in frequent meetings. Keeping the lines of communication open helps managers maintain awareness of employees’ wellbeing and mental health–the fundamentals of work productivity. 
  • Appoint a health manager. A business can outsource its OH program to an external company or appoint an internal manager. OH encompasses complicated laws and nuances, so consulting with a specialist can help HR leaders properly implement OH procedures.
  • Communicate to ensure compliance. HR leaders must ensure that people understand workplace health policies and protocols. To keep the workplace healthy for themselves and others, they need to know the expectations and how to take collective responsibility for everyone’s health. 
  • Train managers. While managers shouldn’t meddle in their team’s health practices, they should be aware of work conditions that diminish people’s health and productivity. Equipping managers with the skills to notice and address issues that arise can help cultivate work-related wellbeing.

How does occupational health improve company culture?

A healthy relationship between people and their work requires constant maintenance. Occupational health supports the upkeep of a sound work environment and a robust workforce. A positive, healthy work environment nurtures employee motivation and productivity, and in turn, contributes to a thriving company culture.