Article two: The role of occupational health in transitioning to a greener future

Health begins where we work, live and play.

The Covid pandemic sharpened employers’ focus on employee health, safety, and wellbeing, and thus brought the role of occupational health into the limelight. But what of the role of occupational health in the face of climate change?

03 Nov 2021

Traditionally, occupational medicine included environmental medicine which has meant being aware of the impact that industry has on the health of the local population, via emissions and discharges into water, soil, and air. This environmental agenda has become more complex in the 21st century because each organisations’ activities is not always perceived locally. Many of the connections between cause and effect can only be seen on a global scale and over a longer timeframe. Therefore, the mechanisms for promoting motivation and a sense of urgency amongst enterprises can no longer be fully addressed by current environmental regulatory mechanisms.

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Many governments and organisations have pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions. For example, here at RPS, it’s inspiring to have our own in-house goal of achieving Net Zero by 2050, and a shorter-term goal of 46% reduction in emissions across the value chain by 2030. Some businesses may be aware of the direct risks they face due to disruptive climate change, such as damage to infrastructure, death, and injury to exposed workers, an unhealthy workforce, or reduced productivity in the context of rising temperatures. Some organisations may be motivated to transition to sustainable practices by factors such as their organisational values and ethics, or the need to attract investment or talented workers. 

How can occupational health help?

Of all the specialty areas within medicine, occupational medicine is uniquely placed for a variety of reasons:

Prevention is better than the alternative

Occupational health practice promotes health and prevents disease in adults who are well enough to be at work.  In addition, it helps those with diseases and disabilities to remain at work, contributing to more fulfilling and engaged lives. This unique position of occupational health offers the platform to work with both individual workers and to shift workplace cultures and practices to protect the health of the workforce. By promoting health and wellbeing, occupational health practitioners can help prevent disease, and thus reduce the economic and environmental costs associated with unnecessary healthcare usage. Preventive medicine is one of the best ways our profession has of reducing its carbon footprint, and the beauty lies in tapping the win-wins that support human health, workplace productivity, as well as protect our planet. As occupational health seizes the sustainability agenda, we can build stronger partnerships with client organisations to promote thriving and climate-friendly workplaces in which healthy green options, such as active transport, plant-based food and mental health awareness are more accessible.

Designing safe working environments

Occupational health allies closely with occupational safety with expertise in designing safe working environments and work practices. One particular area in which workplace safety expertise is likely to be increasingly relevant is safe working in rising temperatures. Globally it is predicted that rising temperatures will make some climates impossible or dangerous to work in. Another workplace health consideration in which occupational health has particular expertise is air pollution and the impact on respiratory health. Here in the UK, the biggest contributor to PM2.5 outdoor air pollution are non-road vehicles and machinery, found in a variety of industries such as agriculture, farming, construction, mining and quarrying. Working with organisations to make the case for practices that are not only better for the environment but for the health of their own employees is an area for ongoing development.

Influencing organisational change

As the branch of medicine that is connected to organisations across commercial, public and third sectors, we can have influence at board or managerial level with a whole range of organisations. We can work with such enterprises to strengthen their understanding of the centrality of climate change to human health, supporting the development of strategies to both manage the current impacts of climate change on health of the workforce, but also to help mitigate ongoing risks. The climate agenda is inextricably linked with human health.

Climate change and mental ill-health

Occupational medicine includes environmental medicine expertise, giving us the scientific and analytical tools to consider, quantify and communicate the impact of industry on human health via environmental media.  This includes not only physical health effects, but also mental health impacts of environmental change. We are becoming increasingly aware of the profound impact that climate change is having on mental ill-health – anxiety in young people about the future stability of their homes and lives, a sense of overwhelm and despair in the face of such huge and complex issues. 

Organisations that transition to greener practices are likely to have a positive effect on the mental health of their workers and local communities. As businesses take positive action to reduce pollution and their carbon footprint, they are embodying hope which in turn can inspire others to commit to environmental justice.

Working together for a sustainable, healthy future

It is particularly exciting to be an occupational health clinician at RPS given the wealth of environmental, energy, water and other expertise all working towards a sustainable future for humans and our planet. I look forward to collaborating with colleagues across the different sectors to move us towards a healthier planet sustaining healthier humans.

 

If you would like more information on how our occupational health specialists can support the health of your people, please contact Dr Napier, via jenny.napier@rpsgroup.com

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