Occupational health and welfare: the basics

The occupational health and welfare issues that can affect your business and how to approach them to ensure employee safety.


6 min read

1. Overview

Health and safety law requires employers to ensure that their business activities and environment do not cause staff to experience physical or mental ill health. This could be sudden, such as an injury, or built up over time, such as chronic stress or repetitive strain.

Also, employers must consider if employees are medically fit to fulfil their role, and whether poor health experienced by any member of staff impacts their ability to do their job.

The Health and Safety Executive describes this area very simply as “the effect of work on health and that of health on work”.

This guide details the types of occupational health risks faced in many workplaces and some of the specific risks found in particular industries. It also sets out the importance of considering occupational health and explains the need to implement systems to manage it.

2. Common occupational health issues

You should consider anything which affects your employees' welfare as an occupational health issue.

  • Back pain and repetitive strain injury (RSI) - a variety of lifting, repetitive and other kinds of work - including computer work - can result in injury or longer-term disability. Good ergonomics can help reduce the risks.
  • Hazardous substances - using chemicals or other hazardous substances at work can put people's health at risk. You must control exposure to hazardous substances to prevent ill-health.
  • Disease prevention and control - you should promote good health and take measures to reduce the risks of diseases, infections and allergies.
  • Heat, light, noise and vibration - consider exposure to sudden changes in temperature, poor lighting and excessive vibration or noise levels.
  • Radiation - exposure to radiation (ionising and non-ionising) is a risk in manufacturing, construction, engineering, and education occupations - as well as medical and dental practices and the nuclear industry.
  • Violence, bullying and harassment - physical violence or psychological intimidation can have a serious impact on an employee's well-being. An effective discipline and grievance procedure is essential in tackling such problems. In addition to protecting employees from harassment from other members of staff, you should also take steps to protect employees from harassment from third parties such as customers and suppliers. Healthy Working Lives provides detailed advice around your duties, assessing risk, and recording incidents.
  • Smoking, drug and alcohol abuse - not only can an addiction affect an individual's performance, their behaviour can have a significant impact on colleagues. It is also against the law to smoke in workplaces, enclosed public spaces and company vehicles used by more than one person.
  • Driving - if employees are required to drive as part of all of their role, then you will need specific policies to cover this
  • Stress - excessive pressure, work concerns or personal problems can affect your employees' psychological, social and physical well-being and you have legal responsibilities around mental health.
  • Work-life balance - carefully considered working practices help employees achieve a better balance between their work and personal lives which can increase their productivity at work.

You should pay particular attention to the needs of new and expectant mothers.

3. Managing occupational health

The need to conduct a wide-ranging assessment of health and safety risks is a legal requirement.

To establish and maintain a working environment that safeguards staff welfare you first need to carry out a risk assessment and involve staff in this exercise.

Once you have identified risks, you need to create a method statement to explain how you will manage those risks and ensure you have the resources you need to do this safely. This will help you to create systems to:

  • assess and consider employees' needs when planning and organising work
  • provide advice, information and training to employees, as well as mechanisms for employee feedback such as a suggestion scheme
  • monitor and record employees' health as appropriate.

Healthy Working Lives provides a useful method statement template.

4. Industry specific issues

The occupational health issues that you and your employees are likely to face will often depend on your industry.

  • Transport - you should consider drivers' comfort and posture as well as the hours they spend at the wheel.
  • Building and construction - consider employees' fitness for particular tasks as well as preventing injury and exposure to excessive noise, vibration and hazardous materials.
  • Manufacturing - take into account a range of hazards, from excessive noise and temperature extremes, to potentially dangerous processes, materials and chemicals.
  • Agriculture - consider possible causes of stress such as long hours and isolation as well as possible exposure to dangerous chemicals, pesticides and zoonoses (diseases that can be spread from animals to humans).
  • Offices - look at the ergonomics - seating, desks, lighting and screens, noise levels.
  • Food and catering - consider the risks of allergies and infections posed by contact with certain substances.
  • Retail, hotel and catering - consider how you can protect employees, particularly those in customer-facing roles, from third-party harassment.
  • Warehousing - consider how exposure to sudden changes in temperature, lifting heavy items and poor lighting can affect health.

In some scenarios, your staff may still experience health risks even once you have implemented measures to reduce those risks - for example risks associated with noise and hazardous substances. In these situations, the law requires you to provide repeated health checks, otherwise known as health surveillance (not to be confused with health screening and the promotion of wellbeing). In this case you will need the support of properly qualified occupational health professionals.

5. Supporting staff with health conditions

When a member of staff discloses they have a health issue or disability, or has been absent and is returning to work, you may need to review your risk assessments.

Aside from complying with Health and Safety legislation, you will need to ensure you meet the requirements of equality legislation.

Healthy Working Lives has several guides on ill health and absence to help employers better support staff with a range of health conditions.

6. Benefits of good occupational health approaches

As well as meeting legal requirements, taking occupational health seriously can bring a range of business benefits:

  • lower absenteeism
  • improved relationships with customers and suppliers
  • improved productivity
  • reduced staff turnover

Overall, it can cut your business' costs and improve its performance.

You can go further and identify other ways to promote general wellbeing and health improvement for your staff. However, you must always prioritise the actions you must take to meet your legal obligations which relate to the needs of your staff in your business environment.

For more information on this topic please contact your local Business Gateway office or visit the Healthy Working Lives website.

7. Further information

Read our introduction to health and safety for employers and ensuring the safety of employees when using equipment.

Healthy Working Lives provides more support and workplace guidance for employers in Scotland, and they've established a National Learning Network to help employers promote and support mentally healthy workplaces.

Get the support you need right now

You can connect with us through the contact form, call us or contact your local Business Gateway office.

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