Hard work vs. healthy work: Dame Carol Black on occupational health and its challenges

Vienna, 30th of January - What happens when two of the most prominent experts in health & safety meet to discuss their respective findings? One thing is for sure, it doesn't stop with chit-chat and coffee, instead some of the hottest topics in the field surface. Professor Andrew Curran, Director of Health and Safety Laboratory, reveals his experience after he had the chance to meet Professor Dame Carol Black.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Professor Dame Carol Black about her work, and her forthcoming presentation at the 8th Annual Health and Safety Excellence Conference. I began by asking Dame Carol what sparked her interest in the field of health, work and wellbeing. She explained that in about 2006, her role as President of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in the UK brought her into contact with the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. This led to an invitation to deliver the key note address at their annual conference, on the challenging topic of the contribution and role of the physician in occupational medicine. In researching this topic, Dame Carol soon realised how little general physicians understood about occupational medicine and that more generally we don't understand the relationship between work and health.

This spark of interest was soon fuelled even further when Dame Carol was appointed as the first UK National Director for Health and Work by the UK government. I asked about the attributes which Dame Carol felt she brought to this important position. She felt that her previous role gave her a wide reach across the medical stakeholder community and that her experience and ability to communicate with people, from the grass roots to people with a National role, was also important. Furthermore, her ability to address issues through collaboration was essential and working across the 28 medical colleges helped with this aspect of the job.

I began to wonder how important it was for Dame Carol to break the link between occupational health and its being seen solely as a medical issue. She agreed that in order to make the changes needed, the profession should embrace other disciplines beyond medicine. In addition, the field needed to modernise and equip itself to deal with changed demographics, more mental health issues, an ageing population, increased chronic disease through longer working lives, different ways of working and new and emerging risks. Addressing these issues was going to require something much broader than conventional occupational medicine, and, importantly, it needed to be multi-specialty and not always medically driven.