What is ‘health’ and what is ‘safety’?

Health and Safety’ has become such a common phrase that people often use it without having much understanding of its meaning.

Generally, ‘health’ means a state of physical, mental and social well-being. It also means an absence of an impairment, illness, infection or disease. Generally, ‘safety’ is the state of being free from the risk of harm and/or injury.

There are health hazards and there are safety hazards and it’s important to remember that they are different in key ways:

Safety Hazards
These cause physical injuries. Some examples:

  • moving parts of machinery could cause cuts, abrasions, crush/trap injuries
  • electricity could give someone an electric shock
  • fire can cause burn injuries

Safety hazards cause acute harm (as opposed to chronic harm). This means the harm is apparent within a relatively short time frame, ie, if you come into contact with the moving parts of machinery – you’ll suffer the consequences immediately.

Health Hazards
These cause illnesses. Some examples:

  • asbestos fibres causing mesothelioma
  • noise could lead to hearing loss
  • stress could lead to a number of conditions (including heart disease)

Health hazards cause chronic harm (as opposed to acute harm). This means that there is a delay between the harm becoming apparent. Sometimes, this delay can be many years, eg, it can take decades for the symptoms of disease caused by asbestos fibres to develop.

The health and safety sector has long-suffered from an under-emphasis on health hazards, which have tended to play second-fiddle to health hazards. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that health hazards are not usually as obvious as safety hazards.

This makes it especially important to take a systematic approach when completing your risk assessments, to help ensure that you don’t miss the various health hazards present on most (if not all) workplaces.

Systematic Risk Assessment
Once you’ve identified the health hazards and evaluated the level of risk, you will of course need to put in place some controls for those that present an unacceptably high risk.

Failure to do this could lead to costly compensation claims and/or prosecution by the relevant enforcing authority.

A recent case involved an engineer who was diagnosed with Hand and Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), which was connected to the use of vibrating tools used to sand components.

The company had failed to conduct a proper risk assessment, which led to not having effective controls in place, such as:

  • Equipment with lower vibration energy
  • Training for workers
  • Health surveillance (which could have picked up on the early indications of a problem).

The company were fined £20,000 and it may end up costing them much more if the injured party decides to make a civil claim for compensation.