What Power Does Occupational Health Have?

Powers of Occupational Health

People who are asked to go to occupational health are usually scared stiff if they have never been before. It sounds formal and frightening and most of the people who go think they are going to get in trouble or worse. They question the powers of occupational health.

I’m saying now – they cannot sack you.

So, what’s the point?

Purpose of Seeing Occupational Health

Employment is complicated if you are a boss.  Many laws apply, health and safety, employment and common law. That’s just for starters – whatever industry you’re working in, service, manufacturing or retail. Each has it’s own set of rules. The owner of the company does not necessarily understand or know each of those laws in great detail. And, the bigger the company the more rules there are. One thing is for sure though, no industry is allowed to harm your health. And a company cannot plead they didn’t know the dangers. They must know – or take advice from experts.

Chemicals

Have you ever seen a Safety Data Sheet for a simple substance such as bleach? See image below.

First section of safety data sheet for bleach
First sections of SDS for household bleach

And this is just the first of four pages. The technical information is amazing – and this is a simple everyday product we use in the home. Imagine the type of information provided for more complex chemicals. Do you think your manager is going to understand all of this?

Which is where occupational health come in.

People at Work

Then we have the workers. Everybody is different, unique. For safety issues, such as banging your head on a scaffold pole, you give people hardhats. Your hat is adjustable to take into account the size of your head. It’s inbuilt in the hat.

Adjustments inside a construction helmet

Peoples’ health it is far more complicated.

Take asthma, for example. Many people have asthma and they live perfectly normal lives. Put them with some of the chemicals used for soldering or two pack paint spraying (cars) and they could have a terrible reaction, sometimes fatal. The worker didn’t know this might happen. So how would your manager know either? They haven’t read the data sheet or if they have they probably won’t understand it. They probably don’t know you have well-controlled asthma. You look perfectly well. And you are – until you come up against kryptonite. If you get a bad reaction or even develop asthma, you are in a bad way and the company will be at fault for not protecting superman.

Could Do not Must Do

This is a long way of saying that managers need technical health advice from experts, someone who has read the datasheets and the information provided by the manufacturer and also, and this is the important part, understand how it’s used in your workplace or factory. Someone must consider individual health issues too, there are many more illnesses affected by work processes than just asthma.

Occupational health is the expert. Doctors, nurses and technicians who know how to protect you and the company from harm. They will have to ask you about your medical background to make sure that everything is okay or you might need special precautions or avoid some part of the job to keep you safe (Personal Protective Equipment see article).

Occupational health will advise management of how to do this. Notice I use the word, ‘advise.’ They cannot ‘tell’ the manager what to do because in a workplace the manager is responsible, in law, for your health and safety whether you like it or not.

Fit for Work

Maybe you have applied for a job and going to occupational health. Do you know what the job entails? Say, you are afraid of heights and a small part of the job involves climbing up on a crane. Maybe you are expected to lift, carry and shift stock around all day with a bad back. How is anyone going to know if you can do this? You’re new, you don’t know. The manager could tweak the job so you can do it. Remember, there are laws which protect people with health problems from being discriminated against, but the manager must know you qualify for the help. (see Equality Act article)

Maybe you have been off sick with illness or injury – can you come back to the same job or do you need support?

Occupational health will advise managers of suitable and reasonable adjustment to the job, so you can do it.

Absence

In the case of you being absent (off sick from work), occupational health has a different role. The first priority is the same though – to make sure it’s not due to a health problem caused or made worse by work. For example, maybe you can’t face working with your team or manager because you’re stressed or have a flare up of a health issue. Or you have a painful arm because you’ve been using your computer in the wrong way or it’s not set up correctly.

Those who are off sick a lot, make life difficult for anyone trying to manage the workload and a team. If you’re phoning in sick ten minutes before your shift customers might he let down. Often others in the team complain about you always being off.

In this case occupational health looks to see if there is a known health problem which is making you sick and unable to attend. They will advise management of the situation, and, based on their knowledge of the workplace and you and the work, go on to make recommendations to improve things for both you and the manager. They can also say there is no link to the illnesses you have been off with, in which case the manager can do nothing to help you – and then you could be in trouble.  Occupational health will never say you should be dismissed. That is the managers decision always. The company pays your wages and they are responsible in law for protecting your health and safety.

Other Powers of Occupational Health

People believe that occupational health can also:

  • send you home sick
  • tell a manager what to do
  • stop work

I won’t go into any of these in detail, but none of these are right. It’s always the manager’s decision of how to manage their workers – they can listen to health advice and can even choose to ignore it. The manager has paid for the advice – occupational health too are employees in this sense, they do not trump the manager. The buck stops there.

Fit Notes

Fit notes, or sick notes as they are known, deserve a special mention in the ‘powers of occupational health’ section, because most people believe a fit note is the law. Your Doctor has told the company you cannot do this or that – or you must be allowed to only come to work on Tuesday afternoons. I joke, but there are some random suggestions I’ve seen from Doctors. These recommendations from the GP have as much legal status as occupational health’s recommendations. It is up to the manager to decide if they can be actioned. Because the GP may not understand the dangers or the resources a company may have, for example, Humpty Dumpty’s Doctor may suggest he is fit to work at his usual job – what Humpty doesn’t know is that tomorrow he’s on scaffolding duties. Another joke.

Seriously now, the fit note is issued for statutory sick pay purposes only – so your employer can work out your pay. The rest of the information is advice only

Specialist Help not a Disciplinary

Occupational health’s recommendations in any situation are based on the work you do, your own personal health history and the hazards you may be exposed to at work. If you like, occupational health is the adjustable strap in the hard hat, trying to help a manager adapt the job around you.

Because occupational health is employed by your company they have a close relationship with it and understand the opportunities to tweak things, making life more comfortable or safer. You may think your GP knows you so much better than they, and no one would disagree. However, GP’s may have no idea of the nuts and bolts of what you do nor the hazards and risks involved in your work. And they probably have little idea of the health and safety rules and regulations which govern your industry.

So if you are invited to go to occupational health – go along, you are being referred to a specialist not a disciplinarian. The powers of occupational health are limited but their knowledge and experience of the workplace and work are second to none.

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