Previously we looked at the three topics identified by the HSE as the priorities for managing health and wellbeing in the workplace – occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and stress.
For the first two topics, the means of identifying the causes and controlling them are well understood, if not always applied. Eliminate hazardous airborne contaminants, and where they can’t be eliminated control exposure by keeping people away, or where there is no alternative, by wearing well-fitted respiratory protective equipment (RPE). Similarly, risk assessments can identify where MSDs might result from manual handling activities, or by awkward postures (for example, when sitting at a computer or in a vehicle all day) and the risk factors can be controlled.
What is less well understood is how to manage the risk from stress. We are all different, and all respond differently to stressors – some people thrive on high workloads, tight deadlines and a busy work life, whilst others will crumble. But using that as an excuse to do nothing is like saying that some people are stronger than others, and doing nothing about unreasonable manual handling requirements. Thinking that way cost one car engine part manufacturer £200,000 in fines and costs in November 2016. Mental wellbeing needs to be taken seriously. The HSE state that work-related stress is responsible for 45% of all working days lost to ill-health, and the British Safety Council cite an estimate that in the construction industry the number of deaths from suicide could be 10 times higher than those from fatal accidents at work.
The tried and tested approach to stress recommended by the HSE is one that traditional safety managers will recognise: identify the hazards and who will be harmed, assess the risks, and control the causes of harm. Whilst yoga classes, counselling phonelines and onsite massage are nice to have, providing these as a first step is the equivalent of providing dust-masks and gardening gloves without considering the types of respiratory or handling hazards people are facing, or whether there is a better way to control the hazards at source.
Whilst yes, we are all different in our response to stressors, the HSE have identified six headings under which workplace stress hazards can be grouped. To make this personal, we have considered this from the perspective of a health and safety manager’s own stress levels.
The HSE provide some excellent, and free, resources to help you carry out your stress risk assessment, including a 35-item questionnaire that can be distributed to all your staff. If you haven’t considered stress at work yet, this is a good place to start.
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