Occupational health research round-up – May 2012

Exhaust fumes linked to lung cancer deaths and high blood pressure

Heavy exposure to diesel exhaust fumes increases the risk of death from lung cancer, according to two studies of non-metal miners in the US carried out by the National Cancer Institute. The researchers selected underground mines for the studies because the heavy equipment used in this setting frequently runs on diesel fuel. Exhausts build up in the air to levels considerably higher than those found in other occupational settings, and many times higher than in the air inhaled by the general public. Both pieces of research reported an exposure-response relationship, with higher risks at increased exposure levels; the risk of lung cancer among heavily exposed underground workers was five times that for workers in the lowest-exposure category. In separate research based on US veterans, public health specialists reveal that long-term exposure to traffic particles is associated with increased blood pressure, “which may explain part of the association with myocardial infarctions and cardiovascular deaths reported in cohort studies,” they conclude.

“The diesel exhaust in miners study: a nested case-control study of lung cancer and diesel exhaust”, Silverman DT et al, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2 March 2012; “The diesel exhaust in miners study: a cohort mortality study with emphasis on lung cancer”, Attfield MD et al, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2 March 2012; “Association between long-term exposure to traffic particles and blood pressure in the Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study”, Schwartz J et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, first published online 1 March 2012.

OH guidance and sedentary workplace behaviour

Using a standard practice guideline to help employees change health behaviours is an effective way of reducing sedentary workplace behaviours and increase fruit intake at work, according to this randomised control trial of draft OH practice guidelines in the Netherlands. OH physicians in the intervention group followed guidance on providing advice to employers on assessing and intervening to make the work environment less sedentary, and conducted counselling with employees to change their lifestyles. A follow-up exercise six months later showed significant effects on sedentary behaviour, which fell by almost half an hour a day, and fruit intake, which increased by an average 2.1 pieces per week in the intervention group. However, using the guidance had little effect on physical activity levels per se, or on sedentary behaviour outside of work, snack intake and body-weight-related outcomes.

“The application of an occupational health guideline reduces sedentary behaviour and increases fruit intake at work: results from an RCT”, Verweij LM et at, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, first published online 1 March 2012.

Psychological work exposures in Europe

Psychological work exposures vary between European countries, according to the first study to compare stress and other risks across 31 European countries. Using data from the 2005 “European working conditions survey”, the authors compare exposures to 18 factors, including low decision latitude, high psychological demands, job strain, low social support and bullying and discrimination. Covariates include age, occupation, employment status and working pattern. Countries were ranked according to levels of exposure, with some, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, displaying a significantly lower prevalence of exposure to four or more factors. Some Southern and Eastern European countries, particularly the Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania and Turkey, had a higher than average prevalence of risk factors.

“Exposure to psychological work factors in 31 European countries”, Niedhammer I et al, Occupational Medicine, first published online 6 March 2012.

Job stress and mental health in the military

Job stress among armed forces personnel in peacetime is asso­ciated with common mental disorders (CMDs), according to this study of the Brazilian army. Just over one-third of personnel reported CMDs, using the 12-item “General household survey” questionnaire. Over-commitment was an important component of job stress, and the research also suggests that the specific occupational characteristics of the military environment can lead to a higher prevalence of CMD among lieutenants, in particular.

“Military hierarchy, job stress and mental health in peacetime”, Martins LCX and Lopes CS, Occupational Medicine, first published online 7 March 2012.

Workplace violence victims fight back

The victims of workplace agg­ression are more likely to fight back if they do not work closely with the perpetrator of the violence, according to a study of 299 North American employees. The research explored how responses of workplace violence victims are affected by the relative power relationship with the perpetrator, and how this affects the like­lihood that the victim will retaliate. The study concludes that victims are more likely to retaliate if they are not dependent on the perpetrator to complete their own work tasks, concluding that spirals of workplace violence depend on the nature of the perpetrator-victim relationship.

“The relationship between workplace aggression and target deviant behaviour: the moderating roles of power and task interdependence”, Hershcovis MS et al, Work and Stress, vol.26, issue 1, 2012.

Asbestos fine

A Scottish-based knitwear company and the site foreman of a cladding firm have been fined £25,000 and £4,000 respectively for health and safety breaches relating to asbestos. In 2008, roofers from the cladding firm removed asbestos sheets from one of the knitwear company’s stores, but also took away plaster-like material from the underside of the sheets and the structural steelwork, which contained asbestos. Workers from the cladding firm had been instructed by the foreman to use a hammer and chisel to remove the material, without making any effort to establish the nature of it beforehand. The debris was put in domestic rubbish sacks and placed in open skips.

In practice: Health and Safety Executive inspector Anne Marie Orrells said: “Had [the foreman] adequately assessed the risks prior to the start of the work, it would have been apparent that the work should have been carried out by an asbestos-licensed contractor, under controlled conditions.”

Excessive noise exposure

A machinist exposed to 21 years of excessive noise has received compensation in an out-of-court settlement from his employer, Point Eight Ltd. The 57-year-old suffers from hearing loss and tinnitus as a result of working with machines in a noisy environment. His employer did not provide him with moulded ear plugs until 1996, which were then replaced by disposable plugs, the wearing of which was never enforced.

In practice: Richard Cartwright of the man’s solicitors, Thompsons, said: “Noise levels are set by law. Employers must ensure they abide by the guidelines and provide workers with appropriate ear defenders and plugs. Provision of these is much cheaper than any compensation claim resulting from failing to do so.”

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