What is Occupational Health & Safety?
The oft forgotten team...until something bad happens.
We spend approximately one-quarter of our lives at work. And when you spend a lot of time at your workplace, it's important you feel safe. That's where occupational health comes in. Occupational health is the part of public health that works to prevent illnesses and injuries in the workplace. Whether you're an office worker looking at a computer the whole day, a nurse dealing with unruly patients, or a construction worker completing dangerous tasks, occupational health works to protect everyone. Read on to find out more about occupational health, your rights at work, and ways to keep yourself safe.
Why Occupational Health Matters
Although we spend a ton of time at work, we don't often believe that we could get sick or injured on the job. Maybe if you work in a factory using heavy machinery the risk is more obvious, but most of the time work feels safe. But almost every job, even desk jobs, have occupational health concerns. An angry customer or co-worker is just as valid of an occupational health concern as extreme heat from working outside as a landscaper.
It's really important that occupational health be placed at the forefront of an employer's priorities because there are many ways work can impact your health. Of course unsafe work environments can lead to serious injury or death, but a workplace can also lead to less-obvious health issues. Mental health may suffer from a bad work environment or challenging work-life balance. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, working from home poses additional mental health challenges, since many are likely to feel confined to one space and experience undue stress or may feel isolated from their coworkers. Additionally, some folks do not have well-designed workspaces and can lead to eye strain and lower-back pain amongst other symptoms. Other common injuries could occur from poor safety culture in which an employer does not properly train you to operate hazardous equipment such as an espresso machine.
How Does Occupational Health Keep Workers Safe?
Occupational health standards and safety protections are often developed in response to historical events we as a society have learned from. Biohazard containers for needles were developed to prevent accidental injections of biological hazards to nurses, sanitarians, and other healthcare professionals. Previously, these could be stored in bags which would occasionally tear or be punctured by needles, inadvertently injecting workers in hospitals and other healthcare settings. The skull and crossbones or danger symbol on hazardous chemicals is used to alert users about dangerous chemicals that can cause you harm. Cooling vests were created for outdoor workers in hot environments so they can stay cool throughout their shifts.
Although our mental and well-being may not be thought of from a more traditional occupational health perspective, we know that our jobs and our personal life can be intertwined and sometimes difficult to compartmentalize. As a result, taking care of ourselves can impact our performance and interactions at work. Research shows that an employee's mental health is a crucial determinant of their workplace performance. Stress from work can cause physical illnesses like "hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions" (1).
Occupational Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic
With COVID-19 impacting workers, occupational health is proving to be a critical area of focus to combat a pervasive virus. Both national and state branches of OSHA have provided guidelines to follow during the pandemic (2). Oregon's occupational health department, for example, is requiring all companies to follow COVID-19 guidelines like physical distancing, mask wearing, and limiting the number of people in a carpool (3). If businesses don't comply with these rules, states can issue fines or citations. CAL OSHA fined businesses upwards of twenty thousand dollars for not protecting their workers during the pandemic (4). Many businesses have gone above and beyond regulations to try to make their employees as safe as possible by increasing air flow in buildings to reduce viral counts in indoor environments, wearing gloves when working with clients or customers in the service industry, and wearing masks while at work and in public.
What You Can Do and Resources to Learn More
It is important we all take a community-based approach in protecting each other's health by ensuring our employers are complying with OSHA and CDC recommendations and requirements. By advocating for your rights as an employee, you are fighting to protect public health. Some ways to get involved and stay proactive with your health at work is by asking a few of these questions:
- What has my employer done to help combat COVID-19 transmission at work?
- Where is the written Respiratory Protection Plan and is it up to date?
- What accommodations are provided if you are not able to wear a respirator for medical or health reasons?
- What training is provided by my employer for occupational health and safety, and when was it last updated?
This is not an inclusive list, but it is a starting point to help you think of what your employer can, has, and should do to protect your health. Also, it is important that you know your rights as an employee and advocate via the whistleblower program if your employer is unwilling to listen. This program protects you from any retaliation your employer may try to evoke as a result. Also, getting involved with your local union (if you belong to one) or a work-related association can greatly increase your power. And of course, wear a mask (if you are not recommended to wear a respirator). It's not fool-proof, but it's one of the last lines of defense for you and your co-workers on the job. We, as a community, must be proactive to save lives during the current pandemic.
To learn more about occupational health and safety, check out these additional sites:
ASSP - American Society of Safety Professionals
COSH - National Council for Occupational Safety & Health - Non-profit advocating for occupational health and safety
NSC - National Safety Council
OSHA - Occupational Safety & Health Administration - COVID-19
If you believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthy, you may file a confidential complaint with OSHA and ask for an inspection. If possible, tell your employer about your concerns. There are many ways to file a complaint, including by calling 800-321-OSHA or filing an online complaint, as well as other methods including in person. Information is available on OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov/workers/file-complaint.
If you believe you have been retaliated against in any way, file a whistleblower complaint within 30 days of the alleged retaliation. There are several ways to do that and each is detailed on OSHA's website at https://www.whistleblowers.gov/complaint_page.