The primary objective of occupational health is to protect the health of employees from adverse effects of work activities. There are five main groups of health hazards in the offshore oil and gas industry:
- musculoskeletal disorders (manual handling, ergonomics)
- hazardous substances
- physical hazards (noise, vibration, asbestos and radiation)
- biological hazards (food/water hygiene)
- psychosocial hazards (stress)
A systematic approach to managing health risks associated with work activities in the offshore industry will require a four-stage risk assessment for each of the occupational health risks. The risk assessment is a small but key part of your overall management system (Planning and Setting Standards). The four stages of the risk assessment process are:
1. Identify the health hazards
Managers can do much of the hazard identification based on their knowledge of the work activity, although they may need access to specialist advice (eg from occupational hygienists, nurses or physicians) in carrying it out. Developing an inventory of health hazards may be a useful and systematic way of gathering this information.
It is important to include hazards created by work activities, such as welding fumes, exhaust gases or hydrogen sulphide, noise/vibration from use of power tools, growth of legionella in water systems and psychosocial stressors, such as the way that work is organised. For most health hazards there are specific regulations with supporting guidance which will help to identify significant hazards.
2. Assess the health risks
A risk is the likelihood that someone will be harmed by the hazard in the circumstances in which it is met. You will need to:
- determine the nature of the hazard
- identify who may be affected and when
- measure the extent and duration of exposure to the hazard
The assessment should show whether the control measures in use are successful in reducing the risk to an acceptably low level. If this is not the case, you will need to select and implement further control measures.
3. Control the risks to health
If the risk assessment shows that you need further control measures, you will need to select the most appropriate type. This hierarchy of control measures can help you select the most effective measures for any situation:
- elimination or substitution
- engineered controls
- procedural controls
- personal protective equipment.
The removal of any health hazards, if possible, would be the option of choice. Failing that the approach should be to use the highest control in the hierarchy where reasonably practicable. Personal protective equipment only protects the wearer and only when worn properly all the time. It should only be used as a last resort or as a stop gap measure until something better can be put in place. All control measures need to be properly maintained, and workers need to be trained and supervised in their use.
4. Mitigate the risks to health
The main aim of health risk assessments is to prevent workers health being affected by their job. However, you will need to put in place arrangements to act quickly, if there is a failure in control, to minimise any ill health effects.
Health surveillance should be put in place to look for early signs of ill health caused by work. Medics and first-aiders should be provided, trained and equipped to deal with the full range of health problems that may arise. There should also be arrangements to transport sick or injured workers to shore promptly to seek medical attention.
Workers who have recovered from illness or injury may have difficulty in adjusting again to work, especially after a long period. They will need assistance and advice to rehabilitate them into the work environment.