Making the Most Of Your Employees’ Health and Safety Medicals
Compliance with the Occupational Health & Safety Act, its related regulations for different industries and other labour legislation is a complex process. It can be cumbersome for companies both large and small and can feel like a legislative minefield that one has to navigate.
But compliance is about more than just ticking the right boxes. Increasingly, companies have come to realise that they don’t just have a legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of their employees – they have a moral obligation too. And it’s the human touch that makes the difference.
Treating your workers as your most valuable asset is a winning strategy that will pay off in the long term, which is why their occupational health and safety should be a top priority. This makes the case for using an occupational health service provider that puts the client first and treats all patients with respect and honesty.
In order to know how to choose the service provider that is right for your company, it is important to understand the day-to-day role of an occupational health practitioner in your business. Because one thing should be clear: managing health and safety risks is about much more than sending your employees for medicals once a year.
Understanding the Role of an Occupational Health Practitioner
According to Evah Pooe, a senior occupational health nurse at Care Net Consultants, it is important to understand that an occupational health practitioner works equally hard for the employer and the employee.
“I’m on both their sides,” says Pooe. “For companies, I try to prevent unnecessary compensation claims, and for workers I try to avoid unnecessary accidents, injuries and deaths. Basically, I save workers’ lives and I save employers money.”
Pooe points out that she is often able to give advance warning to employers that their company is heading for trouble. “Since I’m your eyes and ears as far as workers’ health is concerned, I can see the bigger picture forming. I can tell you to intervene now so that, in five or 10 years’ time, you don’t sit with a workforce who all have hypertension or diabetes, for example.”
Pooe says worker education is one of the most important aspects of her job. “They come and they ask me why are we doing this? I explain that no-one is allowed to work when they’re sick or if they have a medical problem, but that we can fix it. This is important – I allay their fears about losing their jobs so that they tell me everything I need to know.”
She is very strict and easily picks up on the abuse of sick notes as well as non-compliance with safety regulations. “I tell them, ‘You can wear your beautiful takkies and not your safety boots, and then you won’t get compensation. Or, you can go and buy a sick note, but you will get caught.’
“For me, compliance with the occupational health and safety laws is everything. I warn workers always to wear their personal protective equipment. What’s the point of having it when you don’t use it? You’re just putting yourself at risk.”
And because Pooe considers herself a mouthpiece for both sides, she can be equally strict with employers. “I will phone a line manager and ask why a worker with a chronic illness has not turned up for a follow-up appointment. That person is my patient, after all.”
As with any doctor-patient relationship, trust is vital and Pooe works hard to establish it. “Before the medical examination, I make sure a patient is at ease and understands why we are doing certain tests. It’s the only way I can get a true picture of their health.”
However, a trusting relationship with the employer is just as important, says Pooe. “Employers must be able to trust me to act in both their best interest and that of their employees. This can be tricky, because it often seems as if their interests are not necessarily aligned.
“But actually, if you think about it, employees can be productive only if they’re healthy. And they must believe that their employer cares for them. If we can achieve this by making their workplace as safe as possible, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
Sister Evah Pooe’s Top Tips for Employers
1. Educate Your Workers About Their Occupational Health Medicals
No matter what a worker’s position in a company is, having to go for a workplace medical can be intimidating. And it can be doubly stressful if getting or keeping a job depends on obtaining that fitness-to-work certificate.
“Reduce your workers’ anxiety by explaining that the medical exam is for their benefit – that it will actually safeguard their job and not take it away. In South Africa, worker literacy is often low, so take the time to explain, for example, why a driver who transports your workers to and from work cannot have uncontrolled epilepsy.
“If your driver understands that he could kill his co-workers in an accident if he had a sudden seizure while driving their bus, he will be far more willing to co-operate with you on managing his illness.
“And chances are good that he will then be more open and honest with the occupational health nurse during the medical examination.
“In addition, explain why a fitness-to-work certificate is only valid for a year. It’s a question I get a lot and I always tell my patients that someone’s fitness can change any time, so that is why we have to monitor it at certain prescribed intervals.
“I always emphasise that we can fix a problem. I’m not taking your job away, I’m saving your life. So if you have hypertension and you’re working on heights, it is important that we regularly test you. Because that way we can make sure you have the right medication that will bring down your blood pressure, which is the quickest way to get you back on the job.”
Pooe says it is also important to physically prepare workers for their medical examinations. “In most cases it is advisable that workers do not pitch up with their stomachs laden with food. Such a worker may perform less well in the Harvard step test, which is used to test fitness by seeing how quickly the heart rate returns to normal.
“But don’t tell your workers not to eat. Rather tell them to eat lightly – say, a bowl of oats or soft porridge before they leave home, and then they can take an apple or a banana as a snack for later.”
Pooe also advises employers to warn workers who need to do a lung function test that they should not smoke for at least an hour before the examination.
2. Keep Your Workers Close But Keep Your Chronics Even Closer
A company should know precisely which employees are its most vulnerable in terms of health and safety risks, says Pooe.
“Electricians and technicians often fall into this category,” she explains. “For them, an accident usually means death – there’s no second chance in electricity.
“Drivers are another high-risk group that warrants special attention. If a medical condition causes them to lose control of a vehicle it could result in many deaths, so their health status needs close monitoring.
“Employers must know exactly who the workers with chronic diseases are – their numbers, the jobs they are doing, how often they are getting check-ups, and whether they are defaulting on their medicine.
“My best advice is to highlight the chronics in your filing system – all those with hypertension, epilepsy, high cholesterol and diabetes.”
3. Choose a Professional Service Provider Who Understands People
Pooe, who worked as a neonatal, pediatric and general ICU nurse in private hospitals before switching to occupational health and getting her postgraduate BTech degree, says companies often underestimate how specialised the field is.
“Many people don’t realise that, in order to do this job, you need to be a certified and registered occupational health practitioner and that it takes a postgraduate qualification to become one. But over and above the qualification, you also need a person who cares about the rights and needs of both employers and employees.
“I used to nurse babies and children, but now my passion is workers. To me, I’m nursing employees and I want them to work in a safe environment. If they’re sick, I want to make them better so that they can get back to their jobs. If a driver with diabetes has developed cataracts, I want to get him to hospital as quickly as possible so that they can be removed.
“I understand workers’ anxieties about their jobs, especially in these tough economic times, so I try at all times to soothe their fears. For that you need insight into people and the lies they tell medical practitioners about their health and the risks they take.
“So I work hard on building a trusting, one-on-one relationship with each patient. It makes them far more likely to tell me the truth. And that is the only way I can honestly assess their risks and take the best decisions for their health.
“At the same time, I want to save companies money in terms of fewer compensation claims and less absenteeism. It is always my aim to bring down the number of reportable cases of injuries that have occurred on duty. In fact, I want to eliminate them completely.
“I’m an employer’s eyes and ears because I’m in touch with the workforce on a very intimate level. So I can advise them on potential problems that may affect their compliance with the Health & Safety Act. I know the law will catch up with them if they’re not compliant, so I make sure I know all the laws and regulations and keep up to date with them.”
Pooe says an occupational health practitioner must have exceptionally strong communication skills. “You have to give guidance to directors and managers across different departments, and you have to be able to do that with authority so that they heed your advice. If I say we’re heading for trouble, they need to believe me and listen to the interventions I suggest.”