The minister for disabled people, health and work, Sarah Newton, has said the government is “certainly not ruling out” the idea of making it compulsory for employers to provide and invest in occupational health for their employees as part of its review of workplace health.
Speaking to the Society and Faculty of Occupational Medicine’s annual scientific conference this week, Newton was asked whether the government had “given any thought to creating legislation to make occupational health mandatory for employers to provide?”.
She replied: “We are looking at the moment at other countries, and what works in other countries; and we’re looking at where there is much greater access to occupational health services.
“There has been legislation in other countries to put obligations on to employers. So we are certainly not ruling that out at this stage. We are very much at the stage of looking at what has worked, what does work in other countries, and how we can extend that.”
But Newton also emphasised that the review, which is being led by expert working group and is not expected to report until next year, would be taking a methodical and evidence-based approach.
“I have been elected since 2010 and I’ve seen too often people rush towards legislation as a solution, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said.
“If we have a bit more time to really think and listen and test and learn we’ll get a better legislative solution. So it’s not ruled out, and there is a real possibility. But what’s really important is that we legislate for the right thing and, to do that, we need to do all the work that we are committed to doing. And that does include incentives as well for employers; we’re talking about very little businesses, they have a lot of burdens on them, so we need to look at the right incentives as well as the right obligations.”
In her speech, Newton said she recognised that occupational health will need to be at the centre of the government’s reform agenda around workplace health.
“If we want all employers to be the best employers, we need to ensure they have the right, expert advice and support to create healthy and inclusive workplaces as well as excellent, common-sense support to manage sickness absence. And this is why occupational health is at the heart of our reform programme and our whole-system approach. We know that occupational health has a vitally important role to play in supporting people to stay in employment.
“But unlike in some other countries where provision is much more widespread, in the UK many workers have no occupational health support in their workplace and access to other services can be patchy and confusing. So we want to change this, and that’s why last year we set out our intention to develop proposals for truly transformational change in occupational health.
“We can’t deliver the kind of widespread access to good-quality occupational health provision we want to see by working on policy in isolation in Whitehall. Working with experts like you is so important to getting big reforms like this right,” she added.
The government’s review of occupational health was first revealed last December as part of its response to its Work, Health and Disability: improving lives green paper. It is looking at the evidence base around occupational health, including new funding models and “where responsibility for OH support should fall”.
At the same time in December the government announced its intention to close the Fit for Work service this year. Last week it published the detailed evaluation that had taken place in the run-up to this decision.
Newton reiterated that the government had concluded the service was simply not getting enough referrals to make it viable to continue. However, she also suggested the likelihood was that some form of new national service would emerge in its place, although the detail on this had yet to be decided.
She said: “We took the decision to close the service so that we could focus our efforts on finding something that really does work. As I mentioned in the speech, we’re investing a huge amount in trials to really figure out what does work, what services really do support people to stay in work and to get into work.
“Through that testing and learning we will be coming up with a whole service that this time we think will work. But it’s not as simple problem that we’ve set ourselves; there is a lot of complexity here,” Newton added.