Which Department for Occupational Health? HR or H&S?

HR or H&S for OH?

I’ve worked in occupational health (OH) for years and advised many companies. Some businesses put OH in the H&S department and some in HR; only once was I in the Facilities department which was strange. You would think it wouldn’t matter where occupational health and wellbeing services might sit; but you would be wrong. There are distinct differences on how each function operates, and it isn’t just about the personality of those in charge.

HR and H&S have different priorities and given higher authority in the business depending on the industry. For example, when I worked in Constructing Better Health (CBH) – I worked with H&S professionals but in local government and the NHS it was always HR.

I guess if you are reading this blog you might worry about the differences and implications for your job – here is my take on each and answers the differences you are likely to find and why.

Human Resources (HR)

Most large companies have a HR department especially in service industries such as hospitals and local government. They are traditionally female and see all sides of a situation, from an employee view and as a Manager.

Good Points of Being in HR

  • Understand confidentiality and the problems with data protection
  • Know employment law and how this might impact on occupational health recommendations and actions
  • Can see a situation from an individual’s point of view, whether a Manager dealing with a situation or a worker with a health issue.
  • Officers sympathise with health issues
  • Strongest when dealing with stress, bullying and disciplinary issues

Could do better

  • Undervalue occupational health input
  • Do not understand health and safety law specific to processes
  • Confidentiality conflicts may occur with HR reluctant to share key facts.
  • In my experience HR discounts or undervalue OH advice in complex cases and can marginalise the speciality.


HR departments are used to dealing with individuals and appreciate how family circumstances, health and say personality can impact on behaviours such as attendance and motivation. They also know more about an individual than the Manager, having access to their company history and records. They understand about employment law and can apply broad principles to complex cases where personal issues impact on a situation especially in case of bullying and stress.

Health and Safety (H&S)

Every company must have health and safety to assess risk and prevent harm or injury. Risk assessments and accident investigations are key to the function. It is male dominated.

The health and safety function is more mainstream in the dangerous occupations such as construction, nuclear and the railway.

Good Points of Being in H&S

  • Risk based assessment rather than person based assessment means there is an overall process which people understand
  • Not worried about anything apart from health and safety, there is a clear focus on health and safety aspects
  • Managers and employers understand safety concerns – rules apply to everyone
  • OH seen as a part of the health and safety responsibility and given more authority/respect in the organisation
  • OH more mainstream if in this department

Could do better

  • Dogmatic with opinions – safety professionals cannot look at individuals and treat them differently without compromising their own standards.
  • Considers OH secondary to safety
  • Do not understand health in the workplace and OH interventions; therefore miss out on the added value OH can bring.
  • Understand the principles of health surveillance better, for example, health surveillance is about keeping workers safe from harmful substances and not about wellbeing.


H&S is mainstream; being involved at every stage of a business’s work making the atmosphere more dynamic. They do risk assessments and react to dangerous situations. Managers value the H&S department as it keeps the business and workers safe. There are clear laws such as the Health and Safety at Work Act – legislation, which if flouted, means trouble, injury and bad press. Clear cut and fast acting.

Sign saying First Choice as I show my preference for HR or H&S

HR or H&S for Me?

Although most my OH work has been under HR, I prefer H&S. It is mainstream. I like the respect the speciality receives in every workplace. People understand H&S. They may roll their eyes and sigh, but everyone responds to a bad accident and recognises how important it is to keep to the rules. Also, it is easier to put things right.

In HR the water is muddied by personalities and politics. There are so many things to consider, it’s easy to lose sight of the issues and go off on tangents. Time does not seem to be so important in HR and time management is very important to me. I hate it when I see a person with work related stress being sat at home for weeks, mulling on what is happening at work. There are few rules in HR; every case is complex and mysterious legal rulings influence actions.

HR, although understanding case and employment law, do not understand the implications of H&S law which, for me, is the starting point of any individual case.

So give me the H&S department for managing OH every time.

Are you in HR or H&S? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Why not read my book: The Good, The Bad and the Smugly – Behind the Doors Of Occupational Health and see instances of how this works in real cases.

Listen to the Podcast here



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