Occupational Health in the UK

Occupational Health is an exciting post-graduate field of predominantly nursing and medicine professionals. It is unusual in that practitioners are advocates for both the worker and the employer. Workers are not ‘patients’ in the traditional sense and therefore OH practitioners offer workers and those in allied fields of safety, HR and management guidance in a tailored, often educational style to help prevent and react to work-related ill-health and injury. Frequently the aim is assisting affected workers to stay at work or return to work if absent. OH practitioners may have a formalised wellbeing aspect to their work as part of the wider Public Health agenda through being involved in health education and promotion.

Some OH qualifications lead to specialist practitioner designation on the UK NMC (Nursing and Midwifery Council) register. Qualifications may be at degree, post-graduate certificate and diploma, Masters & PhD level. Many OH services are nurse-led and practitioners may be employed in-house or via an OH provider, or through using self-employed contractors. This differs from other European countries where OH is often linked more closely to primary care services. OH career pathways are unique, with diverse opportunities which include within health services, social care, prison and emergency services, forces, charity, service, transport, aviation or manufacturing sectors.

ohlearning hub was set up because of a perceived lack of balance in learning and development opportunities for the UK’s OH workforce which follows health and safety legislative requirements for competent OH advice, whilst meeting accountability requirements of statutory registry bodies such as the NMC for nurses.

This WONCA and ICOH (2014) joint statement summarises day to day challenges for OH practitioners:

‘Health and work are intimately linked. Work under good conditions can have positive effects on health and wellbeing. On the other hand, health and safety are threatened in poor working conditions, which are a daily reality for many workers around the world. Workers exposed to hazards at work suffer various work-related diseases. Failure to adapt working conditions to the capabilities of workers with chronic health problems may limit their ability to work. Poor health, injuries and disabilities prevent many from working at all or at full capacity. Those who do not work frequently suffer worse health because of limited resources or social isolation. Yet, the health and safety of people at work are too often addressed separately from their health outside of work. Similarly, the health and safety of those at work are often viewed in isolation from the health and safety of their families and communities. Each of these affects the others.

‘It is essential to improve the health and productivity of workers by increasing the number, expertise and capacity of health professionals able to prevent and manage work-related health problems. In addition there is an urgent need to increase the number and capacity of occupational health experts and services. This is especially true for those working in low and medium resource countries, the informal economy, small businesses, and agriculture.’

Challenges for occupational health as a speciality now and in the future – According to a statement by occupational health institutes in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) (1995), the most important will be:

  • occupational health problems linked to new information technologies and automation;
  • new chemical substances and physical energies;
  • health hazards associated with new biotechnologies;
  • transfer of hazardous technologies;
  • ageing working populations;
  • special problems of vulnerable and underserved groups (e.g. chronically ill and disabled), including migrants and the unemployed; problems related to growing mobility of worker populations
  • occurrence of new occupational diseases of various origins