Moving to wellbeing

Changing the emphasis from short-term safety to long-term health. by Glyn Jones

Traditional worker wellbeing has primarily focused on improving workplace safety. Whether avoiding injuries due to slips and trips, or falling or faulty equipment, keeping employees safe and free from injury has been – and will continue to be – a major part of industrial workplace health and safety.

In recent years, however, there has been a shift from focusing on general safety towards promoting employees’ long-term health – especially the potential impacts on long-term health associated with working in hazardous environments.

New workplace priorities
Part of the shift towards promoting long-term health is driven by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In a 2017 review the HSE highlighted that it had completed 20,000 inspections of workplaces to reduce risk ‘particularly to health’.

This new focus includes a three-year health and work programme to reduce levels of long-term health issues like work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung diseases – particularly those related to exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

There is also a business factor driving more promotion of worker health, with a CIPD survey finding that 47 per cent of employers now think that employee wellbeing is directly linked to business performance, and this is particularly true in the mining and manufacturing sectors which remain physically demanding jobs.

Understanding long term risks
Understanding potential workplace health risks is essential to creating effective policies. For instance, while the danger of long term exposure to chemicals such as asbestos have been well known for many years, other risks are not as well known.

For example, individuals operating heavy machinery may experience little if any immediate issues but could end up with spinal problems, as well as hearing loss as a result of working in consistently loud environments. Additional risks include respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and head arm vibration related conditions such as vibration white finger.

One of the issues with reducing these long-term risks is being able to clearly track environmental factors and be proactive in minimising risks – but historically this kind of information was not available – which is why the first sign of an issue was when an employee demonstrated symptoms of poor health.

Real-time information
While monitoring technology has been used in the past, a lack of real-time information has undermined employee confidence in the accuracy and relevance of data. If hazardous environments are being manually monitored twice a day, the question remains – what is happening the rest of the time?

Thankfully, the latest monitoring technology is both low cost and low maintenance. Using real-time monitoring to track the quality of the environment, with real-time alerts based on defined thresholds, organisations can operate effective ventilation and suppression to create safe environments – without the extra costs. They can also better demonstrate the quality of the environment, with operatives able to predict any risks before they happen, giving them more confidence that they are working in a safe environment.

Personal health information
This use of real-time monitoring technology is, of course, just the start. The next generation of connected and wearable monitoring and safety equipment is helping to reduce long term health risks even further by measuring vital signs like heart rate, stress levels, breathing, and skin temperature.

This information can be fed back to operational systems in real-time, providing the safety officer or manager with the ability to deploy safety equipment and preventative measures at the point where they are most needed.

Companies can be incredibly flexible, deploying equipment based on both known hazards and known employee health factors. If and when the hazards move, or an individual displays an unhealthy reading, the safety or operations manager can respond immediately.

Enabling change
The wellness trend is well advanced, and organisations in many fields are embracing the concept. Reward and Employee Benefits Associations (Reba) and Punter Southall Health and Protection published a report in 2016 which found that 31 per cent of businesses planned to implement their own wellness strategy and 35 per cent had plans to do so by the end of the decade.

Added incentive is coming from regulators globally. However, a wholesale adoption of real-time monitoring that can underpin effective employee wellbeing policies can only be achieved if the technology is both affordable and usable. It is the latest generation of low cost, low maintenance devices that are set to enable this new and essential shift from safety to wellbeing.

Glyn Jones is Group CEO at Trolex, a provider of workplace safety technology solutions to the mining, industrial and tunnelling sectors. Based in Manchester, UK, Trolex has over 50 years’ experience catering for international businesses, providing state-of-the-art equipment and safety technology to highly diverse workforces operating in hazardous environments.

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