Lifestyle Plays a Vital Role in Bid to Keep Workers Fit and Healthy; Occupational Health in the Workplace Has Long Been Something of a Cinderella Service. Health Editor Madeleine Brindley Speaks to Dr Sally Williams at Corus' Plant in Port Talbot about How the Discipline Is Now Being Taken Seriously

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Byline: Madeleine Brindley

THERE is a common perception that the state-run heavy industries looked after their employees' general health and wellbeing.

This ideal dates back to the heady days of the industrial revolution when a handful of industrialists combined philanthropic ideas with business, in a bid to improve the social and living conditions of their vast armies of workers.

These include the likes of George and Richard Cadbury, who built their chocolate empire in Bournville, in Birmingham, on sound Quaker and social ideals, and Sir Titus Salt, who built more than 800 homes for his mill workers in Saltaire, also in Birmingham.

And then there was the eccentric figure of Dr William Price, one of the forgotten pioneers of health in the workplace - he is remembered first and foremost as the godfather of cremation - who initiated the first workers' medical scheme in Wales for employees of the Brown Lennox chain works, in Pontypridd.

The decades of nationalism would embody a sense of the state looking after its workers - carrying on this philanthropic tradition - not least at a time when all the heavy industries were plagued by industrial diseases, accidents and injury.

Privatisation and the mass sell-off of the nation's "jewels" ushered in a new perception that multi-national companies were more interested in making as much profit as they were able.

But that is beginning to change as businesses have started to take a pro-active stance to their workforce's wellbeing, realising that health, productivity and therefore profitability are inextricably linked.

Nowhere is this new approach more apparent than in Port Talbot, where Corus, which dominates the skyline, has embraced the principles of occupational health both within its 28 sq km plant and in the wider community.

Dr Sally Williams, pictured, the regional medical officer for Corus, leading the occupational health department at the plant in Port Talbot, said: "Once it was all about injuries and industrial disease - pneumoconiosis is now rare and we're seeing the tail end of asbestos related disease - but now we see the impact of lifestyle on people in work.

There is also a lot of talk about a stress epidemic related to work, but it may be more about how we live our lives now. The way we look at occupational health is very different from 60 years ago."

A graduate of Cardiff's medical school, Dr Williams started working in occupational health 20 years ago, after first working as a hospital doctor and later training as a GP.

She said: "I love medicine but I wanted to fit it around my young children - occupational health gave me a mixture of working with patients, community public health and the business aspect. You work for an employer and you have to think about medicine in a slightly different way - my role is really about determining whether someone is fit for their job and whether their job is fit for them."

Before being head-hunted to join Corus two years ago, Dr Williams worked for a Canadian mining company, in Clydach and in Toronto, before being promoted to the company's chief medical officer.

"It was fantastic experience seeing how different healthcare systems worked and I did a lot on corporate social responsibility, which is a growing concept," she said.

"Then I came back to Wales, which was great for me. I came to Corus when it was going through a big change and it has been a great experience. I came to Corus because I was given the opportunity to help the company look at occupational health in a different way - the company had had occupational health since the British Steel days, but it was more reactionary, rather than being based on an employer partnership with community relations. …