‘Covid-19 has dramatically set new dimensions and challenges’

Forts Ports OH advisor Catrona Lowey (pre-Covid) with a colleague. “We have had to risk assess and adapt all occupational health port facilities,” she says.

Continuing our occasional series looking at “a day in the life” of OH practitioners, Occupational Health & Wellbeing spoke to Catrona Lowey, OH advisor at Forth Ports Limited about her role and how things have been changed for her by the pandemic.

Tell us about your role

I have been an occupational health advisor for 29 years and I am responsible for delivering OH services across five separate ports on the east coast of Scotland, managing approximately 450 employees.

My key duties include providing fitness-for-work assessments, sickness absence monitoring, return-to-work plans, managing physician clinics and setting up case conferences. On top of this I attend health and safety meetings, lead on OH policy and protocol development, run health promotion activities and employee assistance and provide advice to employees regarding health matters as well as advice to management regarding medical statutory health surveillance.

The OH department is an on-site facility which has two specially designed and fully equipped medical centres. The team consists of myself as the OH advisor, an OH nurse and a part-time OH physician who holds two clinics per month.

How did you come into occupational health?

I qualified as an RGN from Western General Hospital, Edinburgh and, very simply, responded to a job advert in a local newspaper! Forth Ports was looking for a nurse to work at Grangemouth Docks, which was local to where I lived, and so it seemed an ideal opportunity.

Although at the time I had no occupational health experience, I was working in A&E, which gave me gave me emergency treatment experience. My thoughts at the time were that I would like a change of job with no shift work, no weekend work and a 10-minutes commute, so it was simply a case of apply and see what happens!

I then developed my career by obtaining a BSc in Health Studies (Occupational Health) in 1996 from Caledonian University – Glasgow. I was lucky in that my degree was paid for by the company as part of my professional development and my role as OH advisor developed from there.

What are the most common occupational health concerns/challenges that you face in your role?

For me, they are:

  • Protecting the company from employee litigation;
  • Finding platforms to attract new nurses into the field of occupation health;
  • The lack of external agencies to deal with the ever increasing mental health issues that develop within our workforce;
  • NHS waiting list times for people requiring NHS treatments; and
  • Promoting health promotion activities.

Since March 2020 all aspects of our lives have of course been changed since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country. This has dramatically set new dimensions and challenges in the world of occupational health and my role as Forth Ports occupational health advisor.

All face-to-face, hands-on clinical work was suspended immediately and working from home was required. This unfortunately in Scotland was the case for five months.

As Forth Ports is considered a key industry because of the need to keep shipping moving with the imports of pharmaceutical and food chain cargos, the operational side of the business has continued to work throughout the pandemic with strict Covid guidelines being put in place.

Occupational health has been fully involved in communicating advice to management and employees regarding PPE, social distancing requirement and following government coronavirus advice in an evolving situation. It has also been important to identify our shielding employees and to navigate a safe return back into the workplace.

Covid life has changed for me. I have had to adapt to working from home, taking part in virtual meetings and have had to risk assess and adapt all occupational health port facilities to operate under the government Covid guidelines for clinical work to commence.

Nevertheless, despite this unprecedented year, and how my “day in the life” story has had to be adapted to accommodate the Covid guidelines, my general thoughts and feeling regarding my role as an occupational health advisor remain unchanged

Irrespective of Covid-19, describe for us your “average” day

I always start the day with a coffee and open and respond to emails. I then communicate with HR to discuss the daily sickness absence throughout all departments in all the ports. It’s then a case of setting up equipment and organising a routine health screening/surveillance morning clinic – the clinical work for this clinic will be carried out by my assistant occupational health nurse with current Covid guidelines in situ.

During the current Covid restrictions, the OH physicians clinic is carried out mainly by telephone appointments or virtually. If a face-to-face consultation is required, it is carried out with current Covid risk assessment actions in place. At the end of the clinic we’ll then have a round-up discussion and I’ll contact HR and departmental managers if any outcomes need to be acted upon.

Other common day-to-day tasks include inputting recall medical appointments into our computerised medical recall system. On some days I’ll travel 20 miles to another port to carry out OH duties and then come back to the medical centre office to contact managers to discuss/update them on any OH issues such as sickness absence and adjusted duties.

I’ll organise notes/paperwork for following days’ clinics. I’ll put in calls to employees who are on sickness absence for an update of their situation and email HR/managers with the outcomes. There may be more inputting of statistical daily activity information on to our IT system. Physiotherapy and counselling appointments have to be made and I’ll make sure all medical information is stored securely in the medical centre before locking up for the day. Phew!

Then it’s just a case of commuting home form whatever port I have ended up in at the end of the working day.

What would you say are the best/worst elements of your role?

The best, without a doubt, are:

  • Having access to good facilities and up-to-date equipment.
  • The fact every day can be different, with a variety of tasks.
  • The fact my role is proactive as opposed to reactive nursing, which means I see well people most of the time and sick people much less often. So on the whole it makes it a pleasant job to do.
  • The luxury of having permanent access to a trained OH physician working with the company, who is able to gives me constant access to medical support.
  • Having access to private counselling and physiotherapy services, which I can tap into for employee support.
  • The real positive of having supportive HR and management teams to work with.
  • The fact I have respect from all levels of staff

The worst elements of my role, I would say, are:

  • Dealing with challenging employees.
  • Managing ill-health retirement issues for seriously or terminally ill employees. This is, naturally, also very distressing for the other colleagues.
  • Managing alcohol/drug related issues.
  • Managing employee plus manager expectations of what OH is realistically able to achieve.

What has been one of the most unusual/memorable moments in your career, either within your current role or a previous role?

I’d highlight three. First, reaching my long service award (25 years) and being treated to a wonderful night on The Royal Yacht Britannia.

Second, picking up at a routine medical that a young employee had a serious cerebral aneurysm that he was unaware of. This would have had catastrophic consequences if it had not been treated. This employee was referred to his GP immediately and investigations carried out. The aneurysm was, I am very pleased to say, successfully treated. The employee, naturally, was extremely grateful for this early detection and treatment.

Third, the day when I was able to provide lifesaving first aid to an injured driver.

What advice or tips would you pass on for surviving or thriving as a successful OH practitioner?

I think you need good communication skills, strong IT skills, and good time management. It is important to know your limitations, especially when and to whom to escalate any health issues.

In this role an ability to be flexible is vital, as is being able to work autonomously and independently. Finally, a sense of humour always helps!

Finally, if you were able to go back in time and pass on any advice to your young OH self, what would it be?

First, I would emphasise the need as a practitioner to be understanding of the legislation and history behind health surveillance to ensure your OH service is “fit for purpose”.

Second, I would advise on importance of understanding the business and why/how an employee’s absence impacts on it (this is particularly true for our marine and shift-working employees).

On top of this, I’d recommend the need to develop good organisational skills and always be forward planning. It’s important to be mentally tough – don’t be sensitive at how people speak to you and don’t take things personally!

I’d highlight how vital it is as an OH practitioner to be responding to difficult situations in a professional manner but also to protect your nursing registration at all times.

Finally, I’d advise my young self not to forget to take care of your own wellbeing – not to fall into the trap of taking work issues home with you. Work is work and home is home!

  • How has your “day in the life” as an OH practitioner been affected (or not) by Covid-19? We’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to be profiled as part of this occasional series, simply drop a line to nic.paton@personneltoday.com 

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