In this article:
- What is a medical emergency?
- Types of medical emergencies
- What to do in a medical emergency
- Legal requirements for medical emergencies at work
What is a medical emergency?
A medical emergency can be defined as a serious and unforeseen situation that has been caused by a sudden illness or injury, requiring urgent medical attention.
A range of medical emergencies can occur in the workplace, but sometimes the type of workplace you are situated in and the nature of the work can determine the type of emergencies which happen. If you work in a high-risk workplace, such as a construction site, the types of medical emergencies may include falling from height and injuries from tools. However, the types of emergencies which occur in a low-risk workplace, such as an office, might be related to health, such as a stroke. It is important to prepare for all types of medical emergencies in the workplace.
Types of medical emergencies could include:
- Cardiac arrest/heart attack
- Continuous bleeding
- Slips and trips
- Falling from height
- Allergic reactions
Medical emergencies are likely to occur more often if the workplace environment is not maintained safely and securely. If the office area is littered with wires and unsafe equipment, then employees could easily fall over and hurt themselves.
High-risk workplaces, such as construction sites, where employees are working at height or working with flammable materials, is naturally more dangerous and therefore could result in a higher rate of medical emergencies.
Medical conditions which can instigate heart attacks and seizures are unforeseen, and therefore we cannot know when these medical emergencies will occur. However, being prepared and knowing how to deal with these types of emergencies will ensure you can help an individual if such an emergency occurs.
What to do in a medical emergency
The key to handling medical emergencies in the workplace is to anticipate different types of emergencies before they happen, so that you have a medical procedure in place which you can initiate immediately.
UK employers have a responsibility to ensure health and safety is maintained in the workplace, and this involves teaching employees how to handle a medical emergency. Designated employees will need to undertake first aid training to develop the skills and confidence to handle medical emergencies, for example how to perform CPR and how to stop continuous bleeding.
There are three fundamental aspects to carrying out an initial response to a medical emergency:
Check: Check over the injured individual to assess what type of medical emergency they have encountered.
Call: Call 999 so that emergency life support and help will arrive as soon as possible.
Care: The designated first aiders in the workplace should provide the relevant medical emergency procedure.
If you find someone unconscious but breathing, check if they have any other obvious injuries such as a bleeding wound. If there are none (and you don't think they have a spinal injury), get them into the recovery position and wait with them until medical help arrives. Make sure their airway remains clear and they're still breathing properly.
If someone is suffering from severe choking (unable to shout, speak or cough), it's likely they need immediate help to clear the blockage. Stand behind them and support their chest with one hand, whilst giving them up to five sharp blows to the back – between their shoulder blades – with the heel of your other hand. If this doesn't work, administer five abdominal thrusts. Lean them forwards, pressing your fist above their navel and covering it with your other hand, and pull into them sharply, inwards and upwards. Repeat these processes until help arrives. Please note that abdominal thrusts shouldn't be performed on pregnant women or very young children.
If someone in the workplace receives a burn or scald, run the wound under cold water for around twenty minutes. Remove any clothing (unless it pulls on the skin) and loosely cover the burn with a clean, dry dressing, or some cling film if it's available. Severe burns should always mean the emergency services are called.
Don't touch someone who has received an electric shock unless the power supply has been cut off at the mains, which should be done straight away. The emergency services need to be called at the first opportunity.
A severe reaction to an allergen, often called anaphylaxis, is a medical emergency. If someone in the workplace has such a reaction, use an auto-injector if they carry one and you know how to do so, and call the emergency services even if their symptoms begin to improve. Remove the allergen that's triggered the reaction if you can. Lie the person down flat and monitor their condition until help arrives.
If a colleague has collapsed and appears to be unconscious and not breathing, they will require CPR. The first aiders in the workplace will be trained to deliver CPR. CPR is usually a repeat cycle of thirty compressions, with two rescue breaths. This should be continued until further help has arrived.
Having a defibrillator in your workplace is not a legal requirement in the UK. However, defibrillators have recently saved the lives of many people who could otherwise have experienced fatal consequences. Having a defibrillator in the workplace is becoming more and more important.
Legal requirements for medical emergencies at work
It is a UK legal requirement to maintain health and safety in the workplace, and this includes conducting medical emergency procedures. Therefore, as an organisation it is essential to train and practice medical emergency procedures with your employees, to ensure that if a medical emergency does occur, everyone is prepared to act appropriately.
The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981
The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 requires employers in the UK to ensure that there is adequate equipment, facilities and personnel to conduct first aid for their employees, in case an employee falls ill or has an injury in the workplace.
Organisations across the UK have different workplaces and needs. Some workplaces will be significantly more dangerous than others due to the nature of their work. It is important to ensure that you apply the Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 specifically to your organisation's workplace.
These regulations apply to all UK workplaces, including organisations with less than five employees and those who are self-employed.
Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR)
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) states that UK employers must report work-related medical incidents to the HSE. This information must be stored in line with the Data Protection Act. After a medical emergency procedure has taken place, the employer needs to ensure the necessary legal steps have been complied with through consulting RIDDOR.
The UK HSE is responsible for regulating health and safety law across organisations in the UK. The HSE will prosecute an employer if they have allowed significant risk to occur in the workplace and demonstrated a disregard for health and safety standards.
The HSE offers support and guidance to encourage UK organisations to maintain health and safety standards in the workplace. The HSE provides a syllabus for content which should be included in a first aid at work course, as well as a due diligence checklists for employers to evaluate their first aid training provider.
If an organisation fails to rectify a health and safety breach, prosecution could take place. Prosecution can result in hefty fines and the tarnished reputation of the organisation.
Across 2017/18, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that 1.4 million people suffered from work-related illnesses, and 147 workers died at work across 2018/19. These statistics highlight the importance of conducting and preparing for medical emergency procedures in the workplace, as they could save peoples' lives.
Medical emergency procedures in the workplace can appear daunting, but with prior training and knowledge of how to act, it can ensure that everyone is well-prepared to deal with medical emergencies.