Occupational health research and legal news round-up

Flu jab uptake low among healthcare workers

Enthusiasm for pandemic influenza vaccinations is low among healthcare workers in Italy, according to recent research conducted among nurses and physicians. Results of the survey of 1,960 medical workers shows that the intention to get vaccinated against pandemic H1N1 influenza is generally low – only 29.6% of female staff stated that they would get vaccinated, compared with 49.2% of males. Doctors are more likely to state an intention to be vaccinated compared with nurses – 67% and 31% respectively told the researchers they would opt for the injection. By the start of the winter 2009-10 ‘flu season’, only 14% of Italian healthcare professionals had been vaccinated.

Sickness absence and health-related behaviours

Smoking and obesity are strongly associated with rising levels of sickness absence, according to this study of Finnish local government workers. Other health-related behaviours, such as physical activity and alcohol consumption, are less associated with sickness absence. All associations between health behaviours and absence were stronger for medically certified absence – the risk of such absence more than doubled among obese male heavy smokers, and almost doubled among women who smoked and were obese. Adjusting the data for psychosocial working conditions had little or no effect on the identified associations. Physical working conditions and social class had only a small effect, prompting the researchers to conclude that reducing smoking and relative weight is “likely to provide important gains in work ability and reduce sickness absence”.

Night-working linked to stress hormone secretion

Night work is associated with an increase in the secretion of cortisol – often known as the ‘stress hormone’ – this study concludes. The research examined the relationship between exposure to a range of workplace factors, including night work, long working hours and psychosocial work stress, and cortisol secretion, to test whether such factors interact to produce combined effects. Night work was associated with a 4.28% increase in average cortisol secretion three hours after waking, independent of job strain or working hours. A combination of low job control and night work were associated with even higher average levels of cortisol. The researchers concluded that cortisol dysregulation may exist in sub-groups of workers with specific combinations of stressors such as night work and long hours.

Managers key to use of respiratory equipment

Any attempt to improve the effectiveness of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) at work must start with managers, according to this Health and Safety Executive-sponsored research. A range of factors determine whether an RPE programme is effective, including employees’ and managers’ awareness of hazards, risk perception, the organisation’s safety culture, and individuals’ perceptions about the effectiveness of any protective equipment provided. Many work sites fall down on RPE competence largely because they fail to fit and test the equipment once in use, the researchers conclude. The comfort of equipment affects how the employee wears it and, indeed, whether they continue to wear it once fitted. Factors affecting comfort include whether it is too hot, or chafes, or restricts breathing and communication.

In practice: Managers and those advising them must accept their role in an effective RPE programme and, in particular, ensure that appropriate equipment is provided and play their part in enforcing its use through proper supervision and setting an example.

Low-level noise has progressive effects

Levels of noise that are currently thought to result in only a temporary loss of hearing may cause permanent hearing damage, research suggests. The fact that an individual’s hearing recovers after exposure to intense sound has been assumed to indicate a reversal of damage to the delicate structures of the inner ear, resulting in no subsequent persistent or delayed reaction in auditory function. However, this research suggests that acoustic overexposure causing a moderate, but completely reversible, elevated sensitivity causes an acute loss of some nerve endings, and a delayed degeneration of the cochlear nerve. This noise-induced damage to the ear has progressive and more widespread consequences than those revealed by conventional testing, the authors suggest, and could contribute to the development of tinnitus and other anomalies associated with damage to the inner ear.

£20,000 fine for metalwork fluid mist exposure

Koyo Bearings (Europe) Ltd has been fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £15,280 costs after exposing its entire workforce to a metalworking fluid mist being emitted from more than 100 machines. The company used water-based chemicals during the manufacture of bearings for the automotive industry in a process that involved spraying the metalworking fluid onto fast rotating tool pieces at high pressure, creating a mist that was potentially inhaled by staff. Exposure to these types of metalworking fluids is a known cause of occupational asthma and extrinsic allergic alveolitis. Since 2005, there have been 15 reported cases of such illnesses among Koyo Bearings staff – the second largest exposure of its kind in the UK at a single company, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

In practice: HSE inspector Mark Welsh urges those advising employers working with metalworking fluids to take steps to minimise the risk to employees of inhaling the mist – for example, by ensuring adequate filter systems are in place, and that employees receive appropriate training.

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