The health and wellbeing of workers is an area that can often be overlooked, particularly in higher risk industries where safety is a key focus, according to The University of Queensland.
“The reasons behind this are varied, but may be due to the chronic longer-term nature of health and wellbeing issues, as the consequences of exposures are not seen immediately in contrast to safety hazards,” said Dr Kelly Johnstone, senior lecturer in occupational health and safety science in the university’s school of geography, planning and environmental management.
Another contributing factor is the issue of multiple causal agents in the development of occupational diseases – where both the work and non-work environments can contribute.
“It is also difficult to obtain statistics to support budget requests or research proposals for health and wellbeing initiatives as the effects are underreported and longer-term in nature,” said Johnstone.
Although substantial legislation exists for the management of hazardous chemicals in the workplace, she said this is one area that can be overlooked.
“Noise is also a health hazard, which is not so much overlooked as it is taken for granted,” said Johnstone, who also serves as chair of the SIA College of Fellows.
“Employers assume the only practical way to manage noise in the workplace is through the lowest order control measure of personal hearing protection.
“As we know this is not an effective control measure.
“More attention needs to be placed on substitution and engineering controls to reduce noise exposures.”
Johnstone, who recently spoke at an annual SIA women & friends networking breakfast in Canberra on “looking at the ‘H’ in OHS,” also said that the emergence of black lung is a more recent example of industry becoming complacent about a well-known health issue that was thought to be under control.
“It is important to maintain vigilance with regards to the management and continuous improvement of all workplace health issues, including focusing on higher order control measures to eliminate or mitigate the risks,” said Johnstone, who added that workforce awareness and education must also play a role.
“Crystalline silica exposure is another well-known hazardous dust exposure, which I believe some industries have become complacent about,” she said.
“We may expect to see a rise in health impacts from these exposures in the coming years.”
With the aging workforce in developed countries (including Australia), Johnstone said musculoskeletal issues will continue to be an area of focus for all industries.
“We will also see the emergence of musculoskeletal issues associated with the use of new technology and work at non-standard workstations and in non-standard work environments,” she said.
European countries tend to be ahead of Australia in the area of occupational health, and Johnstone noted they have a big focus on overall worker wellbeing and psychosocial hazards. “We already see increased attention in the area of worker wellbeing with the media interest in the research on sedentary work and its potential health effects,” she said.
“There has always been interest in promoting worker wellbeing, but more research is needed in this area to develop an evidence base for current and future practice.”
Psychosocial risks for aging workers are also getting attention in the peer reviewed literature, according to Johnstone.
“As already discussed, I believe we will continue to see the re-emergence of effects from older health hazards in the workplace due to compliancy and neglect in the management of these risks,” she said.
“Climate change will see an impact on outdoor workers with an increased number of work days with extreme heat conditions.”