Government appoints Carol Black as OH ‘tsar’

Carol Black, president of the Royal College of Physicians, has been named by the government as its occupational health “tsar”.

Professor Dame Black, who has the official title of national director for health and work, will be the public face of the government’s drive to improve health in the workplace and encourage people who have been ill or disabled back into work.

Her appointment follows the publication last autumn of the government’s Health, Work and Wellbeing strategy, which put occupational health at the heart of efforts to promote healthier workplaces.

Leading OH figures have welcomed the appointment (see below), although there has also been disappointment that someone could not have been found from within the profession.

Black said she was “delighted” to have been given an opportunity to bring a new perspective to health through the world of work. “It constitutes a huge challenge to engage the range of public and private organisations necessary to effect change,” she said.

A key element of her role will be to work across the departments of health and work and pensions to make the Health, Work and Well-being strategy a reality.

“It is this new co-ordinated approach which I believe will realise the potential of substantial health and social dividends for the whole population,” she added.

A first step was taken in May, when leading figures from industry, health and the government held a ‘stakeholder summit’ to sign a charter committing themselves to delivering a healthier future for people of working age.

A consultant and professor of rheumatology, Black has been, among other posts, medical director of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust.

What happens next?

Assuming the government can keep to its schedule – and as Black’s appointment was originally due to take place at the end of last year this is by no means certain – the next few weeks should see a flurry of strategy-based activity.

In the strategy document, the government said it wished to publish outcome measures, key targets and goals, the Charter for Health, Work and Wellbeing, an action plan, and a follow-up strategy document in spring 2006.

Longer term, the aim is to create a ‘National Stakeholder Council’ and a ‘stakeholder network’ to promote healthier workplaces.

A series of conferences, meetings and workshops on workplace health will also be held across the country.

Points of view

OH nurses have said that Dame Carol Black is a highly regarded ‘wheeler-dealer’ who can make things happen within the corridors of power – but added that it was a shame that she is not from an occupational health background.

  • Cynthia Atwell, acting chair of the Society of Occupational Health Nurses, said: “It is a good appointment and it is excellent that the government is taking OH seriously. I am disappointed that it is a doctor in the role, because we do need to demedicalise OH. But I recognise it is a political appointment, and she knows the right people.”
  • Anne Harriss, OH course director at London South Bank University, said: “The fact that she is president of the Royal College of Physicians adds weight to her appointment, but there is sadness that she is not an OH nurse or physician. This was an opportunity to have a leading light from within the profession but, having said that, she will bring gravitas to the role.”
  • Kit Harling, consultant occupational physician, Derniford Hospital, and director of the NHS Plus Project, Plymouth, beleived it was an advantage that Black is not an OH practitioner. “I am absolutely delighted that they have appointed Black,” he said. “I’ve said don’t get an OH professional into this job. They need someone who is recognised throughout the NHS.”
  • Bill Callaghan, chair of the Health and Safety Commission, said the strategy, and Black’s appointment, recognised “the need to embrace high standards of health management, recognising the social and economic benefits which this can bring”.

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