Health surveillance in the workplace
Reviewed by Dr. Mashood Khan, Head of Clinical Governance
Health surveillance describes the systematic approach to conducting ongoing health checks in the workplace. The process involves using medical tests to monitor and protect employee health status over a prescribed period, to optimise safe working conditions and wellbeing within the organisation1.
Gathering this holistic picture of an employee’s health on a regular basis means that any aspects of the work environment that can potentially have a negative or adverse effect can be easily identified. Where applicable, the results of the health surveillance mean that interventions can be more readily put in place to minimise risk to employees’ health and exposure to any hazards.
How can health surveillance prevent or reduce work-related illness and injury?
The prime purpose of health surveillance in occupational health is prevention because it should result in action to reduce exposure to hazards in workplaces2. This makes health surveillance as important as any other measures taken by employers to minimise harm such as communicating correct manual handling techniques, having well-developed JTA or simply guarding against seasonal viruses.
Health surveillance is not an alternative to implementing effective control measures according to the hierarchy of controls, i.e., first aiming to eliminate risk completely1. However, Health surveillance provides important information to the employer about the control measures used in the workplace. It lets the employer know if control measures are effective or if a worker’s health is being affected by exposure to hazardous elements of the job, so that action can be taken.
When should employers conduct health surveillance?
As the ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’3, an employer must provide health surveillance:
- Before a person begins to work with a hazardous chemical or in a hazardous environment (baseline monitoring)
- During periods of exposure, particularly excessive exposure, to a hazardous chemical or environment
- Where a worker has concerns that relate to exposure to the hazardous chemical or environment
- When the worker stops working with the hazardous chemical or in the hazardous environment.
What types of industries and job roles require health surveillance?
Health surveillance may be required in industries and job roles that involve or are exposed to:
- Working conditions that involve compressed air
- Mining activities
- Ionising radiation
- Biological agents
- Other substances hazardous to health and for which there is a valid test method for detecting health effects or exposure.
As the level of risk also depends on frequency, duration and level of exposure, carrying out a risk assessment is the best way to decide if your industry or job role requires the ongoing monitoring of employee health.
The identified types of risks will in most cases inform the employer of the appropriate health surveillance measures to select. These may include vision testing, hearing assessments, lung function testing, hazardous chemicals health monitoring, periodic medicals, and company-specific health assessments. Bodycare conducts a wide range of assessments in relation to these measures.
What are the key components of a health surveillance program?
Health surveillance must be carried out or supervised by an appropriately qualified practitioner, whom Bodycare has access to through its national clinical network. The practitioner will choose the best way to monitor your employees’ health and may use more than one method of surveillance, depending on:
- The regulatory requirements
- The types of chemicals, substances, or hazards involved
- The way employees may be exposed
- The level of exposure
- If the work environment includes control methods or equipment to reduce the exposure
- If it is possible to use a proactive way to monitor adverse health effects.
Based on these aspects, the practitioner may monitor employees’ health in different ways to assess exposure and the impact this has on their health4. These techniques may include questionnaires, interviewing and employee consultation, counselling, medical examination, monitoring biological exposure or monitoring biological effects.
Through the data collected, the workplace is then able to set its priorities and develop targeted interventions to reverse any instances of preventable harm. At the same time, an affected employee can gain medical attention or implement further measures to minimise personal risk.
How do you communicate the benefits of health surveillance to employees?
Getting employees to participate in discussions about health and safety is important, as they are most likely to know about the risks of their work. Consult with employees when it comes to the health surveillance process, by communicating the purpose and benefits of health surveillance. Ensure you are clear about why it is needed, and what it will involve, and provide information before engaging the chosen practitioners.
Health surveillance is beneficial to both employers and employees alike. It eliminates the need to wait for extended illness or injury to occur before taking steps2. This is a considerable benefit as many work-related issues can take time to develop and become distressing and costly to all involved, the further an issue is detected.
What are the legal requirements and privacy considerations when implementing health surveillance in the workplace?
Employers have a duty to provide health surveillance, in some cases by law, for Australian employees who are exposed to noise or vibration, fumes, dust, chemicals, and other hazardous substances such as lead and asbestos. The frequency of health surveillance activities varies from industry to industry and company to company depending on regulatory requirements, internal policies, and processes.
Confidentiality of health information should be considered when implementing health surveillance. Health monitoring reports and any test results must be kept as a confidential record and must not be disclosed to another person without the employee’s written consent, except where records are required to be given under locally applicable Acts or Regulations.
How can Bodycare help your business with health surveillance?
If unchecked, routine exposure to hazardous substances and environments can cause severe health issues including disease, injury or illness3. Get in touch with Bodycare to discover how we can tailor onsite or offsite health surveillance to meet your organisation’s needs.