Traditional worker wellbeing has focused almost exclusively on improving workplace safety. From avoiding injury due to falling equipment, preventing explosions from gas, reducing injuries or even fatalities sustained from trips or falls, keeping employees safe at work has been – and will continue to be – a major part of industrial workplace health and safety.
In recent years there has been an emerging shift from general safety towards employee health, especially the potential impacts on long-term health associated with working in hazardous environments. This is due in part to increased awareness across society regarding the long term health hazards.
However, as Glyn Jones, Group CEO Trolex, explains, it is the arrival of real time monitoring technologies that is truly enabling organisations to ensure employees are both safe and healthy.
New workplace priorities
Changing attitudes globally by both businesses and regulators are exemplified by the Health and Safety Executive’s 2016/17 review, highlighting that the agency had completed 20,000 inspections of workplaces to reduce risk “particularly to health” in selected high risk industries. HSE’s priorities are also firmly focused on long term health risks, including the development of a three year health and work programme to reduce levels of a number of long term health issues, including work-related stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung diseases. The agency is also looking to reduce longer term health risks, including 880 inspections in the construction industry to tackle exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and promoting better enclosing processes, dust suppression/extraction, provision of effective RPE (Respiratory protective equipment).
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For businesses fearing just one more round of red tape and regulation, there is a growing body of evidence of the commercial value of fit, healthy and motivated employees. Indeed, a CIPD survey found that 47% of employers now think that employee wellbeing is directly linked to business performance, and this is particularly true in the mining and manufacturing sectors which remain physically demanding jobs.
In addition, a study compiled by the University of Birmingham and Health Exchange highlighted that improving employee health factors – which obviously have better long term health implications – can also actually decrease the chances of workplace injuries due to increased employee awareness and performance. Employee safety and wellbeing are inherently interlinked.
Understanding long term risks
To improve employee wellbeing it is essential to understand the potential risks within each workplace. While the danger of long term exposure to chemicals such as Asbestos have been well known for many years, it has become increasingly clear that many working environments create hazards that have a long term impact on employees, an impact that is not always immediately visible.
For example, individuals operating heavy machinery may experience little if any immediate issues but could end up with spinal problems, as well as hearing loss as a result of working in consistently loud environments. Additional risks include respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and head arm vibration related conditions such as vibration white finger.
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To safeguard employee wellbeing in the long-term, organisations clearly need to be both tracking day to day environmental factors and ensuring proactive strategies to minimise risk. However, in many environments, especially mines, monitoring technologies to date have been somewhat limited. Despite regulatory pressure, especially in the US, for continuous real-time monitoring, companies have resisted the deployment of expensive devices that required continuous maintenance.
As a result, respirable dust exposure remains one of the greatest hazards experienced by miners and workers in a wide range of industries – with over 1/2 million workers still dying every year from the impacts of hazardous dust.
While some mines have used monitoring technology in the past, a lack of real-time information has undermined employee confidence in the accuracy and relevance of data. If air quality is checked only once every 24 hours, or strata movement assessed manually twice a day, employees will understandably ask just what is occurring the rest of the time. Is the air safe? What is the chance of a rock fall? Even if the environment remains 100% fine, a lack of knowledge and awareness can add to employees’ stress, undermining morale and affecting long term health.
The good news is that the latest generation of dust monitoring technology is both low cost and low maintenance, with no vulnerable filter or pump inside, and with a 6 month maintenance cycle, making it far more usable within the field. Using real-time monitoring to track the quality of the environment, with real-time alerts based on defined thresholds, organisations can turn on ventilation and suppression technologies as required to create a consistently safe environment.
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Critically, with real-time monitoring, organisations can demonstrate the quality of the environment to employees at all times. With real-time strata monitoring able to predict any risk of rock fall, employees can be completely confident in the safety of their environment, reducing stress as well as risk of serious injury.
Better information should also enable a far more tailored working environment – for example employees will not need to don masks or protective equipment simply as a matter of course, equipment that can be both restrictive and uncomfortable. Instead, with real-time monitoring, employees can be required to use the equipment only when the dust exposure reaches a certain threshold.
Personal health information
While the latest generation of real-time monitoring technology provides the information to enable organisations to be far more sophisticated about balancing employee comfort with safety, it is just the start. Chest-mounted wearable sensors that measure heart rate, stress levels, breathing, and skin temperature are helping to monitor working conditions and alert workers to health risks which could have longer term effects than those caused by trips and falls.
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This information can be fed back to operational systems in real time, providing the safety officer or manager with the ability to deploy safety equipment and preventative measures at the point where they are most needed. Companies can be incredibly flexible, deploying equipment based on both known hazards and known employee health factors. If and when the hazards move, or an individual displays an unhealthy reading, the safety or operations manager can respond immediately.
The wellness trend is well advanced, and organisations in many fields are embracing the concept. Reward and Employee Benefits Associations (Reba) and Punter Southall Health and Protection published a report in 2016 which found that 31% of businesses planned to implement their own wellness strategy and 35% had plans to do so by the end of the decade.
Added incentive is coming from regulators globally. However, a wholesale adoption of real-time monitoring that can underpin effective employee wellbeing policies can only be achieved if the technology is both affordable and usable. It is the latest generation of low cost, low maintenance devices that are set to enable this new and essential shift from safety to wellbeing.
Sourced by Glyn Jones, Group CEO Trolex.