Occupational health research round-up – February 2012

Bus drivers and unhealthy weight control behaviours

Nearly 60% of bus drivers use at least one unhealthy means of controlling their weight, for example taking diet pills or skipping meals, according to this study of urban bus workers. This occupational group has high rates of obesity and the use of unhealthy weight management behaviours may be more risky due to drivers’ stressful working conditions, the researchers posit. More than half of drivers reported skipping meals, 30% fasted and 10% used diet pills in the 12 months prior to the study.

In practice: Worksite interventions for groups with high obesity rates should address the use of unhealthy methods of weight control, in addition to the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity, the authors suggest.

“Unhealthy and healthy weight control behaviours among bus operators”, Escoto KH and French SA, Occupational Medicine.

Risk of musculoskeletal disorder and education

An individual’s formal and parental education is a more significant predictor of musculoskeletal sickness absence later in working life than their physical fitness, according to this study of Norwegian men. Although sickness absence was associated with fitness, the association was confounded by other characteristics, such as “intellectual capacity” and parental education. For example, unfit men were more likely to have low educational attainment and be employed in industries and organisations characterised by high absence levels.

“Impact of aerobic fitness on musculoskeletal sickness absence 5-15 years later: a cohort study of 227,201 Norwegian employees”, Kristensen P et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Multi-site pain and impact on work ability

Musculoskeletal pain in more than one part of the body has been shown to be a good predictor of work ability after four years, says this study of 734 Finish food-processing employees. Multi-site pain is common and strongly increases work disability risks. However, little is known about the impact of musculoskeletal pain on work ability. There was a strong dose-response relationship between pain at the baseline point in 2005 and an individual’s work ability four years later in 2009. For example, workers with widespread pain at the beginning of the study were almost three times as likely to have developed poor work ability by 2009, with the strongest associations existing among young and white-collar workers.

“Multi-site pain and work ability among an industrial population”, Neupane S et al, Occupational Medicine, vol.61, issue 8, pp.563-569.

Stomach cancer and occupational exposures

Dusty, high-temperature environments are associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer, according to this hospital-based research in southern Spain. In men, a statistically significant increased risk of the diffuse subtype of stomach cancer was observed for cooks, wood-processing operators and food and related products machine operators. A borderline association was found for the intestinal subtype in the case of miners and quarry workers. Those exposed to wood dust over a period of at least 15 years had a significantly raised risk of the diffuse subtype of stomach cancer.

“Occupational exposures and risk of stomach cancer by histological type”, Santibanez M et al, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, first published online 7 November 2011.

Health promotion and the improvement of health-risk behaviours

Further evidence that embedding a health promotion programme can produce long-term changes in health behaviours is provided by this study of university employees. The research sought to assess long-term changes in health risks for employees participating in Vanderbilt University’s incentive-based wellbeing programme. The majority of risk factors improved over a seven-year period (2003 to 2009), with the most consistent changes occurring in physical activity levels. For example, the proportion of employees exercising one or more days a week rose from 72.7% to 83.4%. Positive changes over the period were also observed for smoking cessation and seatbelt usage. Although the greatest changes in employee health behaviours happened in the first two years of the study, improvements were sustained throughout the whole seven-year period.

“Seven year trends in employee health habits from a comprehensive workplace health promotion program at Vanderbilt University”, Byrne DW et al, Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, vol.53, issue 12, December 2011, pp.1,372-1,381.

Organisational change not good for health

Prolonged exposure to restructuring at work has a negative effect on employees’ general health and emotional exhaustion as a result of the associated perception of job insecurity, according to this Dutch study. Emotional exhaustion was more likely among employees who had experienced prolonged exposure to restructuring, or to restructuring during the past year. Job demands and the level of supervisor support are also factors taken into consideration to explain the impact of restructuring on employee health, the researchers conclude.

“Enterprise restructuring and the health of employees: a cohort study”, Geuskens GA et al, Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, first published online 9 December 2011.

Working relationships are top cause of stress

Relationships at work are the most significant sources of organisational stress, according to this study of female healthcare employees. Working relationships with supervisors are a key predictor of several negative outcomes of pressure at work, including sickness absence and dysfunction, the study suggests. The research took the form of a cross-sectional study of 230 employees in a large public hospital, using the Pressure Management Inventory.

“Occupational pressure: targeting organisational factors to ameliorate occupational dysfunction”, Siew Yim Loh and Kia Fatt Quek, Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, vol.21, no.4, December 2011.

Legal news round-up

Compensation for lack of manual-handling training

An amusement arcade worker who sustained permanent damage to his shoulder while moving a gaming machine at work has received compensation from his former employer. At the time of the accident, Martin Kennard was moving a machine weighing around 0.5 tonnes; it was so heavy that it crushed a metal floor plate, causing the machine’s wheel to become trapped. Mr Kennard had worked at the arcade in Worthing for 16 years but had never been provided with manual-handling training, despite being expected to regularly move machines around the arcade. Medical advice after the event suggested that the accident had brought forward a pre-existing problem in his shoulder.

In practice: Sarah Lawrence of Thomsons solicitors said: “Mr Kennard’s safety was put at risk by his employer’s expectation that he could carry out heavy manual-handling tasks like this on his own. It would have been so much cheaper to have another member of staff for deliveries and have them trained in manual handling.”

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