Occupational safety

What is occupational safety?

Occupational safety and health (OSH) is a multidisciplinary field concerned with the safety, health, and welfare of people at work. It is commonly referred to as occupational health and safety (OHS), occupational health or workplace health and safety (WHS).

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) "occupational health deals with all aspects of health and safety in the workplace and has a strong focus on primary prevention of hazards." Health has been defined as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Occupational health is a multidisciplinary field of healthcare concerned with enabling an individual to undertake their occupation, in the way that causes least harm to their health. It contrasts, for example, with the promotion of health and safety at work, which is concerned with preventing harm from any incidental hazards, arising in the workplace.

What is the main purpose of occupational safety?

The goal of occupational safety and health (OSH) programs is to foster a safe and healthy work environment. Occupational Safety may also protect co-workers, family members, employers, customers, and many others who might be affected by the workplace environment.

The main focus in occupational health is on three different objectives:

(i) the maintenance and promotion of workers’ health and working capacity;

(ii) the improvement of working environment and work to become conducive to safety and health and

(iii) development of work organizations and working cultures in a direction that supports health and safety at work and in doing so also promotes a positive social climate and smooth operation and may enhance the productivity of the undertakings.

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Who are the professionals of occupational safety?

Those in the field of occupational health come from a wide range of disciplines and professions including medicine, psychology, epidemiology, physiotherapy and rehabilitation, occupational therapy, occupational medicine, human factors and ergonomics, and many others. Professionals advise on a broad range of occupational health matters. These include how to avoid particular pre-existing conditions causing a problem in the occupation, correct posture for the work, frequency of rest breaks, preventive action that can be undertaken, and so forth.

Read more about: Top HR challenges in the manufacturing industry

Why is occupational safety so important?

1) Every business has safety risks

Occupational safety deals with all aspects of physical, mental and social health and safety in a workplace. It is the umbrella for the company’s efforts to prevent injuries and hazards in all work environments. Every industry presents various kinds of safety hazards to its employees. The spectrum of possible occupational safety risks ranges from severe and immediate physical dangers to milder hazards.

The more immediate causes can be fires, explosions, chemical hazards or other such dangers that present an immediate threat to an employee’s life. Milder hazards include challenges in ergonomics, workloads, mental capacity and general well-being of employees. The latter kinds of risks often take place in an office environment. However, whatever business you are in, there is always the possibility of an accident happening to someone.

2) Well-maintained occupational safety saves money

The biggest and non-measurable cost of a safety failure might be of the personal kind. A lost limb or years of mental rehabilitation can force an individual to adopt a completely new lifestyle and even self-identity. It’s hard to define how to put a price tag on those types of incidents. Fatal injuries, where people actually get killed at completing their tasks, are also unquestionably beyond what we can economically quantify. Besides the one being killed, there are several other direct stakeholders such as family and friends, coworkers and other parties that suffer from it.

Another big loss to a company comes from decreased work morale and increased employee retention. People want to feel safe. It comes as no surprise if employees’ work morale decreases after seeing, for instance, a coworker fall of a lifting track because of inadequate safety measures. And the best people tend to leave first.

3) Occupational safety creates new opportunities

Instead of just seeing occupational safety as hazards and costs which should be controlled and limited, another viewpoint is to embrace it as an untapped opportunity.
One example of doing this is the story of Alcoa. The aluminium products manufacturer is famous for understanding the importance of occupational safety and showing how investment in it can positively affect company profits. When Paul O’Neill started as the CEO of Alcoa, he announced that he wanted to make the company the safest one in the US. Instead of only wanting to hear reports of already occurred injuries and fatalities, he wanted employees to give out suggestions and ideas on how to improve safety. And that eventually changed the whole company culture and employees started to also share their other improvement ideas. Alcoa ended up notably increasing its profits based on ideas that came from its employees. Not only that, but they also learned how to adapt and learn from failure and make better processes. 

4) Occupational safety affects company reputation and productivity

Companies of all forms and from all fields should really take a look at their occupational safety. Adapting and learning from failure is crucial if a company is looking to improve processes in the VUCA world. 

All the previously mentioned reasons are enough to drive a possible change needed at a workplace. We are also living in an era when anyone can update their social media profiles of bad management experiences or post a review of the company to Glassdoor.com. No company should want a possible future recruit to read online that the workplace is not investing in occupational safety. It might soon lead to a situation where the HR department receives less and fewer applications from good candidates.

It is evident that even the smallest acts of not taking care of employees' health and safety are a huge concern for companies both big and small. But the concern should not initially come from complaints in social media. Willingness and interest to invest in occupational safety should strive from a sincere interest in employees’ safety and health and therefore also the company’s productivity and growth. This again can be turned into a huge asset in improving employee retention and hiring the best people.

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