Occupational Health research round-up: May 2013

Mobile phone ring tones affect reaction times

Every mobile phone owner is accustomed to the ring tone of their own phone and almost involuntarily tries to pick it up or check who is calling, a study has found. This action engages a person’s psychomotor skills, delaying and extending the reaction time needed to perform other crucial functions, including driving. The bond existing between a person and their phone can “significantly disrupt their attention and thus affect the attention-­demanding activities”. The complex reaction times of participants in the study were significantly lengthened in a test involving the ringing of their own mobile phones, compared with a landline phone ringing.

Zajdel R et al (2013). “Cell phone ring tone, but not landline phone ring tone, affects complex reaction time”. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health.

IBD and absence

Employees with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have a greater probability of taking time off work and sickness absence compared with their colleagues without the condition, according to this study of US Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data. Those with IBD missed 13.38 days a year of work on average, compared with 9.89 days for those who missed work for another reason, the study concluded.

Gunnarsson C et al (2013).”The employee absenteeism costs of inflammatory bowel disease: Evidence from US national survey data”. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 22 February.

Workload stress for UK academics

Feeling that they are losing control over the way they work is producing a stress epidemic among UK academics, according to a survey by academics and lecturers union University and College Union. Using the Health and Safety Executive stress tool, the survey asked respondents to rate six statements about workload ­control and speed. At a quarter of the universities represented in the report, staff are more stressed by a lack of control over their work than the average British employee. The report names 20 universities where staff are most likely to report a lack of autonomy in their day-to-day working lives.

University and College Union (2013). “2012 occupational stress survey – the control stressor in higher education”.

Occupational injury and psychological health

Occupational injury can have long-term psychological effects, according to this study of Taiwanese workers. The study aims to examine the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression in workers 12 months after sustaining a range of occupational injuries. The estimated rate of either PTSD or major depression among the workers with an occupational injury was 5.2%. Women, those with a lower level of education, those who lost consciousness after the injury, those whose injury affected their physical appearance and those who rated their injury most severely were most at risk of experiencing psychological ill health subsequently.

Kuan-Han Lin et al (2013). “Long-term psychological outcome of workers after occupational injury: prevalence and risk factors”. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, March.

Disability and acceptance in the workplace

Three main groups of variables affect whether a disabled worker is accepted in the workplace: the characteristics of co-workers; the characteristics of the workers with disabilities; and the culture of the employer. A lack of social acceptance by non-disabled co-workers is often the reason why employees with disabilities fail to stay with employers for sustained periods, this literature review proposes.

Vornholt K et al (2013). “Factors affecting the acceptance of people with disabilities at work: a literature review”. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.

Spice exposure and asthma

Exposure to inhalable spice dust at work, particularly that containing garlic and chilli pepper allergens, increases the risk of allergic ­respiratory disease and asthma, ­according to this study of 150 workers completing a respiratory health questionnaire. Dust particulate mass rates were highest in work areas where spices are blended, and spice-dust-related asthma-like symptoms were common (identified in 17% of workers), as was garlic sensitisation (19%). Asthma was more strongly associated with ­chilli pepper than with garlic sensitisation, the authors found.

van der Walt A et al (2013). “Work-related allergic respiratory disease and asthma in spice mill workers is associated with inhalant chili pepper and garlic exposures”. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 14 March.

Low organisational justice is depression risk factor

A work environment characterised by low levels of justice is a risk factor for depression, according to this study of more than 4,000 ­Danish workers. Those reporting high levels of depression two years after a baseline study were assigned to a psychiatric diagnostic interview. This process highlighted that working in a unit with low procedural justice and low relational justice predicted the onset of depression.

Brodsgaard Grynderup M et al (2013). “Work-unit measures of organisational justice and risk of depression – a two-year cohort study”. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 8 March.

Legal round-up

Rail worker compensated for vibration injury

A rail worker who suffered permanent damage to his hands caused by excessive vibration from workplace tools has received substantial compensation. The worker used vibrating tools, including rock drills, for hours at a time each day. Network Rail admitted liability and settled the claim out of court.

Agency worker entitled to discrimination protection

An agency worker who was dismissed after 44 weeks’ service because of absences caused by depression has been awarded £35,000 for disability discrimination and unfair dismissal by an employment tribunal. Corinda Pegg was absent from work for a week while receiving mental health care and on her return was sometimes late, explaining to her manager that this was due to her disability. Two months later, she was admitted to hospital after a panic attack. While receiving medical care at home, she was told by phone that her employment had ended due to poor attendance and punctuality. Work emails revealed that her mental health had been discussed at the office and that talks about ending her employment had begun before management requests for more information were made. The case raises issues about protection from discrimination granted to agency workers. The judge at the subsequent Employment Appeal Tribunal said that since Ms Pegg was under an obligation to work for Camden Council, the authority had a legal duty not to discriminate.

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