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Occupational health

Occupational health is a term used to describe the health issues that may affect a person because of the work they do.

Occupational health – issues
People at work can be exposed to dusts, liquids, gases, noise and heat and sometimes this can make them ill. For example, dusts can be breathed in or accidentally swallowed, and if they are poisonous, they can make the person ill.

On this web page you will learn about some of the illnesses that people may suffer from because of their work. The important point is that you may be able to help stop some illnesses that could happen because of the work people do.

The issues we will discuss are:
1. Hearing conservation
2. Exposure to lead or asbestos
3. Industrial hygiene
4. Occupational stress
5. Alcohol and drug abuse
6. Smoking
7. Ergonomics
8. Age of the worker

Hearing conservation
High noise levels can be produced from sources such as workshop machinery, road drills, aircraft and even tractor engines.

High noise levels can make people deaf if they do not protect their ears. This deafness happens over a long period so people often do not realise that they are going deaf until it is too late.

Noise levels are measured in decibels (dB) by special instruments called noise meters or sound level meters.

In many countries a level of 85 dB has been set as the point where hearing protection devices (HPDs) should be worn.

HPDs are usually earmuffs or earplugs. There are many different sorts and you might need the help of a health and safety specialist to choose the appropriate type for the particular work situation.

Hearing conservation aims to stop people going deaf because of noisy work. The most common ways of doing this are to:
• use quieter machines
• soundproof the source of the noise
• get people to wear hearing protection
• get people to spend less time in noisy places

In some types of work it is recommended that people have their hearing tested regularly.

Exposure to lead or asbestos
In many countries there are laws or regulations that aim to stop people becoming ill from exposure to lead or asbestos.

Lead is used for many reasons and can be found as lead metal, as part of other metal alloys or in other materials such as paint.
If the lead is in a form that can be breathed in or swallowed, the person can suffer from lead poisoning.

To prevent lead poisoning:
• the workplace has to be kept very clean
• lead dust should be prevented from getting into the air
• the worker may need to wear a dust mask
• special showering facilities may need to be provided

If a worker is exposed to a lot of lead then she may need to have regular blood tests to make sure they do not have too much lead in their body.

Asbestos is a material that has many uses such as:
• insulation against heat
• strengthening for cement pipes and boards
• roofing material
• vehicle brake pads

Today asbestos is not used very much but there are still a lot of things that contain asbestos, especially building materials.

Asbestos can produce a fine dust, which if breathed in over a long time, can produce a serious lung disease called asbestosis. Asbestos sometimes causes lung cancer. These diseases can be serious enough to cause a person to die.

Prevention of these diseases is the same as that against lead poisoning:
• the workplace has to be kept very clean
• asbestos should be prevented from getting into the air
• the worker may need to wear a dust mask
• special showering facilities may need to be provided Both lead and asbestos should be handled and disposed of very
carefully.

Industrial hygiene

Industrial hygiene aims to recognise, measure and control hazards in the workplace.

Much of the work carried out in occupational hygiene involves measuring the level of hazardous substances in the workplace air to find out how much a worker might breath in and whether that is dangerous to his/her health.

Industrial hygienists also help to design systems that control hazards, preventing them from reaching “dangerous” levels in the workplace.

Examples of systems that control hazards are:
• soundproofing systems on noisy machines
• ventilation systems to take away dangerous dusts or fumes
• shields that can be used to prevent exposure to welding flashes

Occupational stress
Some stress is good for us: it makes things exciting and keeps us interested in what we are doing. However, if we have too much stress, it can stop us working well and even make us ill.

Stress as a result of working conditions has recently become recognised as a serious but preventable illness. It can lead to a worker becoming unable to work, in the same way as other illnesses and is sometimes called occupational stress.

Occupational stress is often caused because a worker is:
• given work deadlines that are impossible to meet
• given different requests from superiors which seem to conflict
• working in a workplace which is always changing
• bored with the work they do
• asked to use computer software that doesn’t work well
• in a job with poor security
• not coping with shift work

This can lead to ill health, which may be seen as:
• tension
• anxiety
• depression
• alcohol or drug abuse
• anger
• fatigue
• health complaints

This ill health may lead to increased absenteeism, increased accidents and decreased productivity.

The aim of occupational health professionals is to identify what is causing the stress and fix those problems rather than just treating the illnesses. Counselling workers suffering from occupational stress can do much to improve their health but identifying and fixing the causes must also be done.

Alcohol and drug abuse
Alcohol abuse or drug abuse amongst workers may be a way of coping with occupational stress. It may also be part of the social and cultural background of the worker.

A worker who has an alcohol or drug abuse problem will show similar symptoms as those suffering from occupational stress (see above).
The effects of alcohol and drug abuse are similar to those seen in cases of occupational stress, increased absenteeism, increased accidents and decreased productivity.

Smoking
Much has been written about smoking in the workplace and its effects.

There is clear evidence that those who smoke suffer more lung and heart diseases than those who do not smoke. These will lead to increased absenteeism.

There is also evidence that those who do not smoke but work in places where smoking is allowed also suffer from more illnesses. However, the evidence is not as clear.

Those who do not smoke are often irritated by the smoke of those who do, and this can affect their comfort and productivity.

Smoking in the workplace also increases the risk of fires. Banning smoking completely in the workplace can lead to increased stress amongst smokers. It can also increase the risk of a fire because smokers will try to smoke in areas where there are no facilities to put the cigarette out properly.

Many organisations have set aside areas in the workplace for smoking in order to keep smokers and non-smokers comfortable.

Ergonomics
Ergonomics is the study of how work is matched to the humans that do the work. This matching is done to:
• prevent ill health and accidents
• increase productivity

For example, trying to lift a large awkwardly shaped load may lead to a back injury — if the load was smaller in size it could be carried more easily.

Another example is a machine that is placed in a poorly lit area of a workplace. This can mean it is difficult to see the work that is being done on the machine. Poor lighting can lead to difficulty in producing work of good quality. A work arrangement like this can also lead to increased accidents and sometimes to occupational stress.

Age of the worker
Many countries have age restrictions for young workers. Young workers are often unable to cope with the physical and mental demands of work and suffer more illnesses as a result.
Young people are also at more risk from accidents as they have not developed many of the skills needed to keep them safe.

There are also upper age limits on workers in some countries. This is sometimes called the retirement age. Like young people, older people are less able to cope with the physical demands of some work and could suffer more ill health if they continued to work.