Definition of Occupational Health
Since 1950, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have shared a common definition of occupational health. It was adopted by the joint ILO/WHO committee on occupational health at its first session in 1950 and revised at its twelfth session in 1995. The definition reads: “occupational health should aim at: the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological capabilities; and, to summarize, the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job.”
The Changing Approach to Occupational Health and Safety
The traditional approach to safety in the workplace used the ‘careless worker’ model. It was assumed by most employer and the accident prevention bodies that most of the accidents were due to an employee’s failure to take safety seriously or to protect herself or himself. The implication of this is that work can be made safe simply by changing the behavior of employees by poster campaigns and accident prevention training.
In the 1960s, something like a thousand employees was killed at their work in the UK. Every year of that decade about 500,000 employees suffered injuries in varying degrees of severity, and 23 million working days were lost annually on account of industrial injury and disease. Such statistics led investigators to argue that for both humanitarian and economic reasons, no society can accept with complacency that such levels of death, injury and disease and waste must be regarded as the inevitable price of meeting its needs for goods and services. Since the Robens report, there has been a growing interest in occupational health and safety. Moreover, it has been recognized that the ‘careless worker’ model does not explain occupational ill-health caused by toxic substances, noise, and badly designed and unsafe of work. Nor does this perspective highlight the importance of job stress, fatigue and poor working environments in contributing to the causes of accidents. A new approach to occupational health and safety, the ‘shared responsibility’ model, assumes that the best way to reduce levels of occupational accidents and disease relies on the cooperation of both employers and employees: a self-generating effort’ between ‘those who create the risks and those who work with them.
Occupational Health and Safety and the HRM Cycle
The employer has a duty to maintain a healthy and safe workplace. The health and safety function is directly related to the elements of the HRM cycle — selection, appraisal, rewards and training. Health and safety considerations and policy can affect the selection process in two ways. It is safe to assume that in the recruitment process potential applicants will be more likely to be attracted to an organization that has a reputation for offering a healthy and safe work environment for employees. The maintenance of a healthy and safe workplace can be facilitated in the selection process by selecting applicants with personality traits that decrease the likelihood of accident. The appraisal of a manager’s performance that incorporates the safety record of a department or section can also facilitate health and safety. Research suggests that safety programs are more effective when the accident rates of their sections are an important criterion of managerial performance. Safe work behavior can be encouraged by a reward system that ties bonus payments to the safety record of a work group or section. Some organizations also provide prizes to their employees for safe work behavior, a good safety record or suggestions to improve health and safety. Training and HR development play a critical role in promoting health and safety awareness among employees.
Costs of Occupational Health and Safety of Employees
Workplace health and safety raises the question of economic costs. The economic cost of occupational health and safety to the organization is double-edged. On the one hand, health and safety measures which protect employees from the hazards of the workplace can conflict with management’s objective of containing production costs. On the other hand, effective health and safety policies can improve the performance of employees and the organization, by reducing costs associated with accidents, disabilities, absenteeism, or illness.
There are also indirect costs associated with work-related accidents. The indirect costs include overtime payments necessary to make up for lost production, cost of retaining a replacement employee, a wage cost for the time spent by HRM personnel recruiting, selecting and training the new employee and, in less typical cases and the cost associated with loss of revenue on orders cancelled or lost if the accident causes a net long-term reduction on sales.
A healthy and safe work environment helps to reduce costs and improve organizational effectiveness. If work-related illness and accidents can be transposed on to the balance sheet the organization can apply the same management effort and creativity to designing and maintaining a healthy and safe workplace as managers customarily apply to other facets of the business. Accident prevention can be integrated into the overall economic activity of the firm.
The Importance of Occupational Health and Safety
In addition to improving and reducing costs, maintaining a healthy and safe work environment helps to facilitate employees’ commitment to quality and improve industrial relations. One of the side effects of a proactive health and safety policy is that it leads to improved productivity and quality. A cap (cost and productivity) program was continually emphasized by top management and ‘one major aspect of this was the highest standards of housekeeping. Further it is argued that employee and union-management relations can be improved when employers satisfy their employees’ health and safety needs.
In some cases, new provisions covering health and safety have been negotiated into collective agreements. When employers take a greater responsibility for occupational health and safety it can change employee behavior and employees might take a less militant stance during wage bargaining if management pay attention to housekeeping. Attention to workplace health and safety can have a strong, positive effect on employee commitment. When employees work in healthy and safe workplace, higher levels of motivation, performance and loyalty will result.