One issue occupational hygienists don’t usually get involved with is mental health, yet this is a major cause of ill health associated with work. The best estimate from the Health and Safety Executive is that In Great Britain there were at least 5,750 new cases of work-related mental health problems in 2007, although this is likely to be a significant underestimate of the true incidence. A survey of the British workforce suggested that in 2007/08 an estimated 442 000 individuals in Britain, believed that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. These figures are comparable to the numbers affected by more traditional types of occupational ill health.
The nature of work in Western Europe is changing. Traditional industry is shutting up shop and moving to cheap labour economies. The number of people exposed to chemical and physical stressors in Western Europe and the USA has reduced and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In the developing economies occupational hygienists will continue to face the same types of problems that hygienists have been dealing with for many years. But elsewhere, the nature of work related illness is changing and will continue to do so with mental stress probably becoming even more important. This is a challenge that will need to be addressed. There are other professions that view mental health as “their” territory – particularly medical professionals. But they are focused on treatment rather than prevention.
Preventing stress at work is largely about work organisation and the social, rather than physical, environment. These issues often fall into the remit of ergonomists but most occupational hygienists don’t get too involved in them. However, the principles of control are the same, whatever the stressor and I believe that most hygienists have to skills to apply the principles of good control practice to the prevention and control of mental stress. Where we are likely to have difficulties is in the recognition and evaluation of the problem and if we are to begin to become involved in tackling the issue this is where we are likely to have to develop new knowledge and skills and learn how to apply our existing skills to a new problem. HSE have some interesting material on their website including tools that can be used for the identification and assessment of work related stress.
Occupational hygiene is about preventing ill health and if the causes and nature of work related illness changes perhaps we need to change our focus and adapt our skills to the new challenges posed in the recognition, evaluation and control of stress at work. This wouldn’t be easy, but perhaps its something we ought to be thinking about.