Occupational health research round-up – August 2012

Work-based interventions for depression

Group sessions aimed at helping employees become more resilient at work are successful in preventing depression, according to a randomised controlled study involving 566 employees in 17 organisations. The group sessions were delivered by trainers from the employer’s occupational health services and HR, and attempted to improve how workers prepare for career management and their ability to bounce back after setbacks at work. At follow-up sessions seven months later, the odds of depression were lower in the intervention group than the control group after adjusting for job strain, sociodemographic factors and the pre-existence of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the trial.

“Resource-enhancing group intervention against depression at the workplace: who benefits? A randomised controlled study with a seven-month follow-up”, Ahola K et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, first published online 19 June 2012.

Employees returning to work after cancer

A hospital-based programme to support people back into work following cancer could work, but only if occupational physicians are prepared to get involved, according to a study of 65 patients. The programme involved nurses delivering education and support, but in only 10% of cases did the patient’s OH service and line manager get involved, despite being invited. Patients reported that the intervention was useful, despite the absence of OH in most cases, and nurses in the hospital found the intervention feasible to deliver.

“A hospital-based work support intervention to enhance the return-to-work of cancer patients: a process evaluation”, Tamminga SJ et al, Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, first published online 15 June 2012.

Long working hours and risk of depression

Further evidence that working long hours increases the risk of depression, particularly if the job involves high demands, has emerged in a cross-sectional examination of 218 clerical and 1,160 sales workers. The study concludes that the risk of developing depression while working with high job demands for more than 60 hours per week is much higher than working fewer hours in a job with low demands.

“Relationship between long working hours and depression in two working populations: a structural equation model approach”, Amagasa T et al, Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 16 May 2012.

Employment and health inequality relationships

The lack of comprehensive surveillance systems capable of monitoring the social determinants of health and their relationship with health inequalities is undermining efforts to explore the link between work and health, according to a commentary in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The World Health Organisation Commission on Social Determinants of Health, and successive subsequent global assemblies, strongly recommend that countries create such surveillance systems in order to monitor employment-related health inequalities, but the area remains neglected, the commentary concludes.

“The challenge of monitoring employment-related health inequalities”, Benach J et al, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, published online 16 June 2012.

Workplace promotion cuts heart disease risk

Being promoted may reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 2.6 to 12.8 percentage points over a 15-year period, according to the latest analysis of civil servants in the “Whitehall II” study. The analysis uses variation in promotions across civil service departments and cohorts to identify the effect of promotion on coronary heart disease, estimating “large effects of promotion on heart disease”. These findings are consistent with other research on the causal effects of socio-economic status on health, the authors conclude.

“The effects of promotions on heart disease: evidence from Whitehall”, Anderson M, Marmot M, The Economic Journal, vol.122, issue 56, pp.555-589.

Committee questions EU flight-time plans

A House of Commons committee has raised concerns about proposed new EU rules on the working hours of pilots and cabin crew. The Transport Committee has argued that the UK operates stricter flight-time Regulations than some other European countries, but would not be able to keep these under plans to harmonise hours around an 11-hour night-duty period proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Committee chair, Louise Ellman, points out that 43% of pilots already report falling asleep involuntarily while on duty, and that the EU proposals would make fatigue an even greater risk. “The proposed 11-hour duty period at night for pilots flies in the face of scientific evidence. It should be reduced to a 10-hour maximum,” she adds.

Legal news round-up

Employers prosecuted under asbestos laws

A further raft of asbestos-related prosecutions has resulted in a series of fines for employers in the construction sector and organisations associated with the construction industry. Timberwise UK Ltd, a timber-repair company, was fined a total of £18,000 and ordered to pay £5,314 in costs after pleading guilty to four offences under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. In South Wales, potentially deadly fibres were spread through an antiques shop and left on the premises for three weeks. None of the workers on the site received sufficient information, instruction or training in working with asbestos, and the employer did not have a licence to remove or handle asbestos-containing material. In a second prosecution, AG&M Ltd, a licensed asbestos removal contractor, was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £5,349 in costs for putting workers at risk of exposure during a refurbishment in Kenilworth. The firm failed to maintain a decontamination unit and respiratory masks, and did not have a trained supervisor on the site during the work.

Gardener compensated for thorn prick

A local authority gardener has received compensation from his former employers for the contraction of a life-threatening infection after being pricked from a Berberis bush at work. The man spent two weeks in intensive care after his initial flu-like symptoms turned into a serious streptococcal infection after the thorn penetrated the inadequate gloves he was using. He had asked his employer, Broxtowe Borough Council, for more appropriate gloves but none were provided.

In practice: Allison Fitchett of Thompsons Solicitors comments: “Working with thorny bushes are part and parcel of being a gardener but steps can be taken to avoid injury. Our client asked time and again for his bosses to provide him with suitable gloves but his requests fell on deaf ears, with appalling consequences.”

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