Many years ago, as I set out on my career as a newly qualified accountant, I never would have imagined that I would end up working in the occupational health sector. Indeed, I would have had very little knowledge of occupational health in those days.
I have now been the finance director of an occupational health company for more than 15 years and have grown increasingly interested in the sector and its origins. I recently visited a couple of medical bookshops in London and was both surprised and disappointed to find that there were no books on the historical origins of occupational health. This increased my desire to know more about how modern occupational health came into being?
Nowadays it is accepted as best practice that potential employees undergo medical assessments in certain sectors to ensure that they are fit-for-task and thus physically and mentally capable of undertaking particular jobs. An example of such practice comes from the time of Nelson’s navy when the ship’s surgeon would inspect all new recruits before they were signed up to the ship’s company. Ship design was, in certain aspects, dictated by the physical abilities of the crew. This was not a matter of kindness or altruism, but rather a question of operational necessity.
Other examples can be gleaned from military history. During the First World War all of Kitchener’s recruits were medically examined. Only the fittest of men were recruited to go to war with the possibility of being wounded, maimed or killed. The main criticism levelled against the army’s administration in those wartime days was that the average British recruit was not really fit-for-purpose.
Moving from the military to civilian sectors, two excellent examples are commercial aviation and the merchant navy. It was apparent from the outset that pilots and merchant naval officers & crew needed to enjoy a certain level of fitness in order to safely fulfil their roles.
In considering the above examples, one can see how the modern concept of fitness-for-task came into being. However, another source of modern occupational health practices comes from the philanthropic intent of some of the large Quaker factories. Not only were the owners of these factories motivated to provide safe and caring working environments for their workforces, but they were also interested by the concept of good health amongst the workers. Thus they invested in works canteens, works social clubs and the provision of medical services with factory-based nurses who often benefited from doctor support, too.
As I cast my eye over the modern vista of commerce and industry, I ask myself what should be considered today in respect of occupational health? One things seems clear to me and this is that a person, before performing a job, should be fit to do that job (i.e. fit-for-task) and be free of the influence of alcohol and / or illicit drugs. There should also be no unacceptable side-effects (which might have safety implications) from prescribed medication(s). Alongside meeting the requirements of pertinent occupational health laws & directives, a prudent employer will also wish to protect the company (and its directors) from potential legal claims.
Both the health of the workforce and the legal probity of companies can best be achieved by implementing initiatives that encapsulate health & safety, occupational hygiene and occupational health programmes. An occupational health programme will benefit the physical & mental wellbeing of the workers and ensure that the employing company is compliant with the law.
Occupational health is largely provided by the private sector in the UK. A good OH supplier should provide added value to client companies with a pleasingly positive effect on the bottom line. Would any sane employer wish to employ any member of staff who is not fit-for-task and / or has a drink / drug addiction? My experience to date tells me that the answer is a categorical “no!” An employer will look to an occupational health supplier for professional expertise, a highly flexible service and an economy of fees.
John O’Donnell is finance director of Express Medicals Ltdwww.expressmedicals.co.uk