This article describes Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in a practical way. After reading you will understand the definition and basics of this powerful Human Resources concept.
What is Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)?
Ever since the industrial revolution, there has been attention to health and safety at the workplace. As time progressed, more labour movements concerned with employee welfare arose in the second half of the 19th century. For example, the so-called Factory Acts were initiated in Great Britain that led to the creation of an Act in 1833. This act revolved around the poor health of children working in cotton factories. In 1842, the Mining Act took effect, giving attention to the incredibly dangerous working conditions of labourers in the mining industry. It was reformer and German statesman Otto von Bismarck who initiated the first social security legislation and drew up the very first Compensation Act for labourers in the Western world in 1884.
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is about health and safety at the workplace. In the Netherlands, attention to health, safety and wellness at work is captured in the ARBO legislation. Wellness, Health and Safety (WHS) is another name, but is also aimed at the three previously mentioned pillars, just like OSH and ARBO. Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is aimed at a multidisciplinary field that is concerned with the safety, health and well-being of employees. Various disciplines join forces and research this topic, such as healthcare, psychology, epidemiology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Together they advise on a wide range of occupational health issues. Think of assessing risks, avoiding working with harmful substances, the right body posture during work, frequency of breaks, taking preventive measures, and the alternation and challenges the work presents.
The protection of employees against work-related diseases and injury is part of the historic mandate of the ILO; the International Labour Organisations of the United Nations. Since 1950, the ILO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have a joint definition of occupational health, where they indicate that the priority of occupational health lies in the following three objectives:
- Maintaining and advancing the health and working capacity of employees;
- Improving the work environment to ensure and safeguard safety and health;
- Development of labour organisations and cultures to support the health and safety at work and, in doing so, advance a positive social climate and smooth working, which means productivity isn’t at risk.
The ILO standards for safety and health at work are essential instruments for governments, employers and employees to establish safe working methods. Additionally, the WHO indicates that Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) must deal with all aspects of business healthcare in the field of health and safety at work. The focus also lies on the primary prevention of possible work hazards. Additionally, the ILO standards focus on the global danger of child labour, where children work in various sectors, such as agriculture, mining, industry, hotels, fast-food companies, household services, clothing industry and sex industry under dangerous conditions.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded in 1919. This international labour organisation estimates that annually, approximately 22,000 children die while working.
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) objective
OSH’s objective is to safeguard the health and safety of a work environment. Additionally, it’s aimed at protecting colleagues, family members, employers, customers and other possible parties. Recently, the chromium trioxide scandal has received a lot of media attention in the Netherlands. This concerns paint that was used in the armed forces, containing the carcinogenic substance chromium trioxide. Years of exposure to this harmful compound have caused the illness of employees. The compound affects the DNA, leading to a high chance of tumours and lung cancer. Ill employees are now suing the Dutch state because of this.
In the United States, the term occupational safety and health is known as occupational health. Additionally, a distinction is made between occupational and non-occupational safety, which is aimed at safety for activities outside of work. Employers have a social duty towards and responsibility for the safety of their employees. The statutes act can also impose more general tasks, including the implementation of specific tasks and founding governmental institutions that receive the authority to arrange for and inspect everything in the field of occupational safety.
In the Netherlands, Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is represented in the Labour Conditions Act that took effect in 1999. The act is aimed at the improvement of the labour conditions and has rights duties for both employer and employee. In practice, this means that employers must sometimes offer protective clothing and equipment and that employees must use these properly and in accordance with the safety regulations. If that is not the case and an occupational accident occurs, it’s up to the labour inspectorate to discover who was culpable. If an employer has followed the rules but the employee has deviated from the safety standards, the blame lies with this latter party.
The entire Occupational Health and Safety policy is aimed at the quality of work, the quality of the work environment, and the employee’s experience of the occupational situation. Additionally, three parties are involved in Occupational Health and Safety policy. First the coordinator who monitors whether the organisation works in accordance with regulations. The Labour Inspectorate performs random inspections at companies and investigates following occupational accidents. The Labour Inspectorate is also authorised to issue imperative indications, impose fines and shut down an organisation. Finally, there is the Health and Safety Service that is aimed at risk inventory, absence supervision and position-oriented inspections.
According to the International Labour Organisation, safe labour conditions are a fundamental human right and part of dignified work. Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) must ensure that investments made by organisations lead to durable improvement of the labour conditions. This leads to satisfied employees who practise their work in a healthy, motivated and responsible way. As a result, fewer occupational accidents and illness will occur, which benefits the productivity of organisations. Durable improvement of labour conditions must particularly be based on the collaboration between employers and employees at companies. It must particularly be aimed at the awareness and involvement of employee safety.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? In what ways is Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) applied within your organisation?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Alli, B. O. (2008). Fundamental principles of occupational health and safety Second edition. International Labour Office, Geneva.
- Niu, S. (2010). Ergonomics and occupational safety and health: An ILO perspective. Applied ergonomics, 41(6), 744-753.
- Verbeek, J., Pulliainen, M., & Kankaanpää, E. (2009). A systematic review of occupational safety and health business cases. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 403-412.
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