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Workplace assessment and action

Having established common health effects from work, the next step is to check and measure the conditions in the workplace to determine if any of the possible health effects occur. This is a key activity, should be carried out mainly by an organisation’s OSH professionals but, as with OSH generally, may need input from external specialists occasionally. It should be carried out initially, as part of the assessment of any risks to health, to inform recruitment processes, and in order to stipulate suitable workplace controls and inform the health surveillance process. It should also be carried out when significant changes are made to the workplace or work processes, such as new equipment, to check whether health risk assessments are still suitable and sufficient, and monitoring processes are still relevant. This may indicate the need for additional or alternative risk controls.

The OSH professional, or specialist, needs to be familiar with the workplace and the work activities carried out within it, in order to assess possible health effects accurately. A range of assessment protocols should be used, as below, to determine any possible effects of the workplace, and the jobs performed by workers, on the health and wellbeing of workers. These could include:

  • evaluation of noise levels in the workplace, to determine the types and level of noise
  • measurements of lighting in the workplace, to determine its suitability for the work being done
  • temperatures in the workplace, both high and low
  • any possible exposure to radiation, both ionising and non-ionising
  • measuring levels of dust, and its nature, to which workers could be exposed
  • evaluating the presence and levels of gases and vapours that could give risk to health risks
  • assessing vibration levels to which workers are exposed
  • assessing possible exposure to harmful liquids, such as acids, cutting oils, alkalis and solvents, some of which may be carcinogenic
  • the physical demands of work, which could lead to assessing ergonomic risks and possibly stress.

Some of these will require specialist measuring equipment, and competence in using it. Such measuring equipment will include:

  • calibrated noise meters
  • light meters, usually calibrated in lux units
  • accurate temperature monitors
  • Geiger counters to measure ionising radiation levels
  • dust meters and personal dust samplers for subsequent gravimetric analysis
  • gas monitors and detectors for both toxic and flammable gases
  • vibration meters which typically record the level and exposure time
  • test kits for specific chemicals and monitoring skin condition for signs of adverse reactions
  • equipment used in analysis of physical demands of work, including adaptation of work equipment to workers, and manual handling issues.

The majority of the above measurements could be carried out by an OSH professional, but specialist help may be needed with issues such as gravimetric analysis of dust content. It is important that measurements are taken correctly to be valid, including levels in the workplace generally and the use of personal exposure measuring equipment.

Having assessed the workplace, a number of interventions may be needed to reduce or mitigate the risks found. These can be summarised as follows:

  • enclose equipment/machinery to reduce general noise levels, using noise-reducing mountings for machinery, or specify equipment with lower emitted noise levels
  • shield or relocate lighting to reduce light levels, or conversely increase lighting for low light levels and introduce more natural light where possible
  • increase ventilation or heating as appropriate to cool or heat the workplace, or provide thermal clothing for workers in refrigerated areas and limit time exposure
  • provide lead shielding or relocate radiation sources to protect workers
  • provide or enhance dust extraction, using vacuum cleaners rather than brushing to clean workplace to reduce additional dust generation
  • provide or enhance fume extraction for gases, or enclose the process
  • specify equipment with lower vibration levels, limit time exposure of workers, provide insulating gloves where feasible
  • re-design process to reduce potential for worker exposure, provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE)
  • analyse work tasks and re-design to improve adaptation to workers, reducing manual handling by providing handling aids where possible and providing manual handling training for workers.

Interventions to address psychosocial risks will require a wider consideration of working methods and culture in the organisation. Aspects of the work that cause stress, for example, will require investigation to establish the extent of this and what changes could be introduced. Control over the type and pace of work is another area for investigation.