Conference news round-up

Work is Good for You – organised by the Royal College of Nursing OH Managers Forum – 7-8 June 2006

OH tsar makes debut speech

By Noel O’Reilly

The new occupational health tsar, professor Dame Carol Black, made her first speech to an audience of OH nurses last month, and called on them to help her take the UK’s workplace health strategy forward.

Black said she had decided not to deliver the official Department of Health speech that she had been given. Instead, she used the OH Managers Forum as a platform to ask for the input of OH professionals into how the government’s ‘Health, Work and Wellbeing’ strategy should be delivered.

“I’ve been given a fairly blank sheet of paper on which I have to build,” she said. “I quite genuinely say to you if you have any thoughts, please let me know… There is good practice out there, but it’s not around the whole country.”

OH nurses responded with a range of proposals and insights.

Black admitted that during her career in secondary care, she had not asked patients what effect their work or unemployment had had on their health.

She said it would be a challenge to increase GPs’ awareness of occupational health, and suggested that the bigger polyclinics or GPs with specialist interest in OH could be among the solutions to gaining GP support.

Black said she would spend the first three months visiting workplaces when she takes up her new role in September.

You can contact Carol Black at

BMI is not the best indicator of poor health

Body mass index is not a good measure of obesity, according to Dr David Haslan, who specialises in the subject.

He said waist circumference was a far better predictor of ill health.

This is because it takes account of visceral fat in the abdomen – a cause of hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, thrombosis and other illnesses, especially in men.

The Safe and Diverse Workplace, organised by the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners – 16 May 2006

Global demographics will force UK employers to recruit older workers

Changing global age demographics mean that employers will not be able to use migrant workers to fill skills gaps, and will have to employ more older staff, a leading expert on age told delegates.

Dr Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing at Oxford University, said the ageing population will not only be a problem for Europe, but also for Asia, including China. Within the next two decades, the continent will be competing with Europe for scarce labour, she said.

Employers need to tailor policies to an older workforce and recognise that older employees have special requirements.

“It is really important that human resources departments tailor policies to the 50 to 70 age group,” said Harper. “They do take longer to learn. They do tend to slow down.”

By 2030, half of Europe’s population will be over the age of 50, and a quarter of Asia’s population will be over 60.

“We already have a tight labour market, especially in health and social care – the idea that we can rely on migrants to prop up Europe is going to change dramatically,” Harper warned.

Research shows that there is likely to be a skills drain from other countries into China by 2030, with the country’s professional classes ageing. The Chinese government has already mapped out the age structure of every occupation in the future.

Next year’s conference will be held on 9 and 10 May in London

OH must prepare for ageism laws

OH teams should review pre-employment screening procedures, workforce rehabilitation programmes and homeworking policies in preparation for the forthcoming age regulations, employment lawyer Joan Lewis warned.

Lewis told delegates to look carefully at the criteria for pre-employment screening before the regulations come into force on October 1 this year.

“What’s unlawful is to disadvantage one group against another by the criteria set in these procedures,” she said. “Start asking for job descriptions when people are sending employees to you for screenings.”

Lewis also advised OH practitioners to have another look at workforce rehabilitation programmes. She advised that older employees may need a longer recovery time after becoming ill or injured.

Older employees were also more likely to request homeworking. “If your organisation doesn’t have a homework policy, it should, and a risk assessment to go with it,” said Lewis. 

UK absence is not a big issue

There is no evidence of a major problem with absenteeism [in the UK] compared with other countries, a senior trade union OH official said.

Hugh Robertson, senior policy officer, health and safety, at the Trades Union Congress, argued that a third of absenteeism is caused by work, which often relates to organisational culture, and that there is no widespread evidence of employees taking sickness absence when they are not ill.

“The problem is that you are not going to reduce sickness absence by concentrating on the worker… but by concentrating on the cause,” said Robertson.

Health at Work Congress 2006, organised by the Commercial Occupational Health Providers Association – 23-24 May 2006

Government OH strategy set to increase employment rate

By Noel O’Reilly

The government has a long way to go to improve the health of the working-age population, but its occupational health strategy will increase the employment rate from 75% to 80% of the available workforce, a minister told delegates.

“We start from the premise that work is good for the individual,” said Jim Murphy, minister of state for employment and welfare reform, who took up his position in May.

Murphy, speaking at the Health at Work Congress, said the emphasis of government policy was on keeping people in work, and said it wanted a big increase in the availability of OH services through its ‘Health, Work and Wellbeing’ strategy, launched in October 2005.

The government will publish a review of the scientific evidence of the links between work and health in the autumn.

“We have to crack the high levels of economic inactivity in a number of our big cities,” Murphy added, citing London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow as examples.

The government is aiming to get 2.5 million more people in work, including one million who are currently on incapacity benefit.

Tories would boost mental health funds

A Tory government would put a higher proportion of NHS spending into mental health care, but would not necessarily incentivise employers financially to invest in OH services to deal with the problem.

“We need to make sure that mental health has a fairer share of the NHS funding,” said shadow health minister Tim Loughton. However, he did not promise to offer tax relief for employers.

“What I’m not going to say is we’re going to plough a load of money into providing tax relief for employers who provide services… There are some interesting things going on that don’t require tax relief or big handouts from central government.”

Loughton said mental health was a ‘second-class citizen’ in funding, and the Tories would put more funding into early intervention and promote the competitive advantage for employers who invest in workplace health.

Migrant staff preferred to unemployed

Employers will choose migrant labour instead of people with a ‘lack of employability’ who have been on long-term incapacity benefit, the leading employers’ body has warned.

There will need to be enhanced support in the workplace and training for those returning to work, warned John Cridland, deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry.
“My membership has seen much more attractive, possibly short-term, employment options, such as migrant labour,” said Cridland.
He said the government needs to educate people about health issues, and individuals need to take individual responsibility for poor health and personal problems, caused by poor nutrition, smoking and alcohol.

HEADLINE: Federation of Occupational Health Nurses Within the European Union
Organised by FOHNEU – 6-8 April 2006

HEADLINE: European OH round-up

Finland: A new law introduced in February 2006 strengthens the official monitoring of occupational health and safety standards.

France: Nurses are continuing to lobby for a ‘nursing order’, equivalent to the UK Nurses and Midwives Act, after it was rejected by parliament.

Ireland: The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 has been introduced. It spells out the responsibilities of managers and staff, and is similar to the UK Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 2002.

The Netherlands: OH nurses have lost their jobs following a change to the law in 2005 removing the requirement for employers to provide OH services.

UK: Many of the Harmonising OH Nurse Education in the European Union (HOHNEU) programmes will be piloted soon, and the project will be formally launched at the FOHNEU Congress in London in September 2007. It aims to develop a distance learning educational curriculum for OH nurses, to standardise OH nurse education across Europe.

The FOHNEU Congress will be held in London on 19 -21 September 2007.


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