What is health surveillance and do I need it in my workplace?

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What is health surveillance – The quick answer

  • ‘Health surveillance’ is a way of protecting an employee from work related ill health by monitoring the effects of work on their health and ensuring ill health does not affect their work. 
  • It’s usually needed when an employee is exposed to possible hazards that could affect their health. e.g. noise, dust, chemicals, vibration. The assessments are repeated at regular intervals.
  • The results are compared over time allowing an overview of the workers’ health and early identification of any abnormalities.  
  • Legislation sets out some known workplace health hazards and the law requires an employer to operate an appropriate health surveillance programme.  At other times it is recommended best practice.
  • Health surveillance helps you ensure your health & safety control measures are effective in mitigating risk to worker’s health.

What is health surveillance – The longer answer

Health surveillance is a programme of workplace medicals carried out routinely to check the health of your employees over several years.

The medicals are usually specific to the hazards they are exposed to at work. For example, someone working in a noisy environment is likely to have a regular hearing test, or someone carrying out a process that generates a lot of dust is likely to need a routine lung function assessment.

The results are recorded and compared with previous results to make sure there has been no decline in health status that could be linked to their work.

A baseline assessment is often carried out before the employee starts work or becomes exposed to the hazard. This means that future results can be compared to their ‘baseline health status’ to look for any decline.

The advantages of this are three-fold:

  1. Companies can ensure their health and safety practices are effective and not injuring their employees
  2. Employee health trends can be monitored across an area, department, or job role allowing early identification of any issues that do arise so they can be rectified quickly
  3. Having a baseline assessment to compare future results against can protect companies against future claims of work-related ill health

What happens during a health surveillance medical assessment?

What happens during a health surveillance medical assessment depends on the risks the employee is exposed to. Usually, it will contain any or all of the following:

  • General health questionnaire
  • A health questionnaire specific to the risks e.g. HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome) for workers exposed to vibration
  • Blood pressure check
  • Hearing test (audiometry)
  • Lung function test (respiratory test / spirometry)
  • Skin check
  • Musculoskeletal assessment (range of movement)
  • Vision test
  • Urinalysis
  • Blood test (if exposed to certain substances)
  • Mental health check in

Some basic health surveillance can be done by your own employees such as supervisors who have been trained to spot, for example, skin problems. In some circumstances, questionnaire screening by an occupational health practitioner is appropriate, and in other cases, a face to face medical assessment or a combination of these methods is necessary to meet the health surveillance requirements of your business.

It all depends on the level of risk identified in your health and safety risk assessments.