Legal and research news round-up

Research news round-up…

Stress surveillance

Anxiety and depression continue to account for the largest proportion of diagnoses of mental ill health reported to specialist psychiatrists and occupational physicians participating in the UK voluntary surveillance scheme, The Health and Occupation Reporting Network (THOR).

The majority of cases of work-related mental ill health reported to doctors in THOR between 2002 and 2005 (the period analysed by the researchers) were attributed to factors such as workload and difficulties with other employees. The researchers also indicate that the factors linked to cases of mental ill health at work may vary by industry, suggesting a case might be made for further sector-specific advice and guidance on stress and mental ill health.

In practice: THOR data, available via the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website, is a useful way of tracking current trends in occupational ill health reported to specialist doctors, backing up the self-reported data contained in the HSE-sponsored series.

Effective manual handling training

The principles learned during manual handling training are often not applied in the work environment, according to an analysis of 53 intervention studies investigating the effectiveness of manual handling training.

The review found little evidence that either technique- or education-based training is effective in cutting back pain and injury, although strength and flexibility training “shows promise”.

In practice: Review training and focus on multidimensional interventions, including exercises to promote strength and flexibility. Ensure training is tailored to occupation and sector.

GPs and sickness certification

GPs are not aware of the guidance available from the Department for Work and Pensions on their role in sickness certification, and most (63%) have received no training in the process.

Where training is received, the average amounts to just over four hours. Most GPs also feel that their patients have an equal influence to themselves on the duration of the certificates they issue. The researchers call for more education and training in sickness certification, and for computer systems in GP surgeries to be used to improve the process.

In practice: The GP role in sickness certification is changing with the introduction of the ‘fit note’. This includes a greater emphasis during training on the role of ‘good work’ and the doctor’s part in fostering it, and working with a patient’s employers and occupational health advisers to aid rehabilitation.

Formaldehyde confirmed as group 1 carcinogen

A group of 23 scientists from six countries, meeting at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, has confirmed that formaldehyde is carcinogenic to humans. The experts agreed that there is sufficient evidence in humans of an increased incidence of nasopharyngeal carcinomas. In addition, the evidence on leukaemia has become stronger since the group first classified the chemical as a carcinogenic to humans in 2004 – new research shows that formaldehyde can cause blood cell abnormalities that are characteristic of leukaemia development.

Passive jobs breed couch potatoes

Men with passive jobs tend to have low levels of physical activity in their leisure time, regardless of other risk factors, according to a recent analysis of the Whitehall II cohort study. The prevalence ratio for low physical activity was 1.16 times greater for men who reported that they had worked in passive jobs over a long period of time than for those who had never undertaken a passive job. However, no such association was found for women who had worked in passive jobs.

  • Association between passive jobs and low levels of leisure-time physical activity: the Whitehall II cohort study, Gimeno D, Elovainio M, Jokela M, De Vogli R, Marmot M G, Kivimaki M, Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2009; 66; 772-776,

Legal news round-up…

Medical confidentiality

A new guide published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) outlines the law and practice on medical examinations and confidentiality at work.

The guide stresses the importance of explaining the purpose and content of any medical examination to employees before seeking their consent to attend, and also stresses that staff must be given the opportunity to challenge any employer request to submit to an examination if they feel it is unwarranted. The publication suggests that most problems with medical reports concern the use to which a report is put, rather than its contents per se. This is particularly the case where a report is used during discussions over early ill-health retirement, adjustments to work following sickness absence, and redeployment, the TUC adds.

In practice: This guide is a useful tool for OH professionals looking to improve the robustness of policies and procedures on medical confidentiality, particularly in the context of the profession’s role in sickness absence management.

Industrial asthma

A woman who developed occupational asthma within weeks of starting work at a factory making electric generators has received £20,000 compensation from her employer.

The 42-year-old woman was diagnosed after she was exposed to soldering fumes at Turbo Power Systems Ltd for up to six hours a day. She worked with rosin-based soldering wire – a known trigger for occupational asthma – but was never given any training or warning by her employer about the risks of such work. The work took place in an enclosed space with inadequate extraction, according to solicitors Thompsons, who pursued the case on her behalf. The company was also fined £3,000 after the Health and Safety Executive brought a prosecution for unlawfully exposing employees to soldering flux flumes.

In practice: Tony Hood, of Thompsons, points out that rosin-based solder flux flumes are a well-known cause of asthma, and that employers need to have rigorous measures in place to ensure workers are not exposed to the risk of developing the condition as a result of any work practices.

Noise-induced deafness and tinnitus

A college lecturer has received undisclosed damages from his former employer, Gateshead College, after being exposed to excessive noise at work during the 1960s and 1970s. He lectured in motor vehicle bodywork and was often in the college’s workshop for eight hours at a time, teaching students to use impact chisels, which is a kind of pneumatic tool.

After a diagnosis of hearing loss, his trade union, the University and College Union, suggested that his condition was likely to be the result of workplace exposure, and a claim was pursued.

In practice: Employers and advisers need to be aware of the need to ensure employees are given appropriate hearing protection; to ensure that work areas are sound-proofed wherever practicable; and to control individuals’ exposure to any unavoidable excessive noise in the workplace.

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