Research news round-up

Workplace noise and risk of heart disease

A strong association exists between chronic exposure to occupational noise and the prevalence of coronary heart disease (CHD) and hypertension, particularly among men under the age of 50 and smokers. The study is based on a large, nationally representative sample with extensive individual information, which allowed for a good control of known cardiovascular risk factors. Long-term exposure to self-reported loud noise in the workplace was associated with a nearly threefold increase in the prevalence of CHD and isolated diastolic hypertension. The association with angina pectoris, myocardial infarction or CHD was particularly strong for younger participants, men and smokers. The researchers conclude that excess noise exposure in the workplace is an important OH issue and deserves special attention.

Exposure to occupational noise and cardiovascular disease in the United States: the national health and nutrition examination survey 1999-2004, Wen Qi Gan et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published first online 5 October 2010.

Hand hygiene and absence

Alcohol-based hand disinfectants are a cost-effective way of cutting absence from work, according to a German study. Local government workers supplied with hand disinfectant and asked to use it five times a day reported fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms every month during a 12-month survey period. Statistically significant reductions in symptoms were found for the common cold. Workers in the intervention group took fewer days off work sick than the control group because of most of the symptoms evaluated. In addition, the researchers found that symptoms of illness among those using disinfectant were lower than in the control group even when participants were not absent from work, suggesting that the disinfectant may also improve overall job productivity.

In practice: the authors point out that hand disinfectant can be introduced easily outside clinical settings as part of overall hand hygiene.
Effectiveness of alcohol-based hand disinfectants in a public administration: impact on health and work performance related to acute respiratory symptoms and diarrhoea, Nils-Olaf Hübner et al, BMC Infectious Diseases 2010, 10:250.

New stress approach cuts absence at Doncaster MBC

A coordinated approach to stress management has led to a significant reduction in the number of days lost to stress-related absence at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, according to a case study from the Health and Safety Executive. Total absence days because of stress totalled 26,505 in 2009/10, down from 39,699 the previous year. The council uses stress risk assessment both as a diagnostic tool for employees and to help managers pinpoint stress hotspots. It also uses a stress management good practice guide and has held a number of stress and wellbeing events.

Obesity costs US employers $73.1 billion a year

The annual cost of obesity among full-time employees in the US is $73.1 billion, according to estimates based on cross-sectional analysis of panel surveys. Among men, the cost ranges from $322 per overweight male to $6,087 for grade three (previously morbid) obesity. For women, the comparable costs are $797 to $6,994. Individuals with a body mass index of more than 35 represent 37% of the obese population in the US, but are responsible for 61% of excess costs.

The costs of obesity in the workplace, Finkelstein E A et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 2010, vol. 52, issue 10, pp.971–976.

Job stress and antidepressants

Men with high job demands and low social support from colleagues are more likely to use antidepressants, even after adjusting for lifestyle factors, socio-demographic factors, co-morbidity, other work factors and depressive symptoms at the beginning of the study. The research was based on a group of 4,661 Danish employees drawn from a 10% random sample of the population. The effects of job demands and low social support were buffered for those men with high private social support and those with children. No relationship was found between adverse job characteristics and the use of antidepressants in women.

Job stress and the use of antidepressant medicine: a 3.5-year follow-up study among Danish employees, Thielen K et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online first 8 October 2010.

Evidence-based benefit

Employers using evidence on employee usage of workplace health programmes, and on the direct and indirect costs of ill health, to design their workplace health programmes gain most in terms of cost reduction and lower absence levels, according to a group of occupational health professionals writing in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Although drawing on the US system, under which employers bear a significant proportion of employee healthcare costs, the cost benefit approach to designing healthcare is gaining credence in the UK, and the authors propose that employers focus on the direct and indirect costs of ill health when reviewing health benefits. A case study of how one large manufacturer aligned workplace health with the bottom line is presented in a separate article. Absence costs at the company fell by 46% between 2002 and 2008 as a result of adopting an evidence-based approach.

How to align evidence-based benefit design with the employer bottom line: a case study, Bunn W B et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, October 2010, vol. 52, issue 10, pp.956–963.

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