Occupational Health research round-up: October 2013

“Fracking” presents respiratory risk

Hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – presents an emerging OH risk due to the fact that it involves the mechanical handling of thousands of pounds of quartz-containing sand, which creates respirable crystalline silica dust. A US study of workers at 11 wells found that exposure to the dust exceeded official exposure limits, in some cases by 10 times or more. Seven points of dust generation were identified, including sand-handling machinery and the dust generated by the site itself.

Esswein EJ et al (2013). “Occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing”. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene; vol.10, pp.347–356.

Good leadership mitigates workers’ levels of stress

Working under high time pressure is less stressful if one’s line manager is “transformational”, according to a study of German IT workers. Time pressure increases strain and decreases wellbeing, but these effects are mitigated if leaders are able to produce positive changes in the motivation, engagement and morale of the people in their teams, the authors suggest.

Syrek CJ et al (2013). “Stress in highly demanding IT jobs: transformational leadership moderates the impact of time pressure on exhaustion and work–life balance”. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology; vol.18, issue 3.

Incivility at work affects health

Incivility at work, including rude emails and other electronic communication, is associated with a host of negative health outcomes, including increased burnout and physical symptoms, according to a study. Participants completed a series of maths tasks while interacting with either a supportive or uncivil line manager via email. At the same time, data was collected on their energy, cardiac activity, mood, engagement and work performance. Workers reported higher negative effects and lower levels of energy after communicating with the rude manager than with the supportive one, and performed poorly on the maths tasks. No differences in cardiac activity were observed, however, between the two types of interactions.

Giumetti GW et al (2013). “What a rude e-mail! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement and performance in an online context”. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology; vol.18, issue 3.

Micro-firms are less likely to buy OH services

Companies employing fewer than 90 people are significantly less likely to purchase OH services than larger small or medium-sized enterprises, according to a study examining the purchasing behaviour of small employers. Just under a quarter of the 387 firms surveyed had purchased OH services and 81% of the total indicated that they were aware of the existence of OH. However, only 35% rated OH as “very important”.

Harrison J et al (2013). “Occupational health purchasing behaviour by SMEs – a new theoretical model”. Occupational Medicine, published online 16 August.

Organisational change has negative impact on health

Organisational change has a short-term negative impact on workers’ health, but this is reversible over the longer term, according to an analysis of data from the Whitehall II study. The short-term effects of a major restructuring of the civil service were investigated for the period 1991–93 and the long-term ones for the period 1997–99. Those who had experienced the structural change, and those who anticipated it, reported more negative short-term health effects such as minor psychiatric disorders compared with those reporting that they had not experienced a restructuring. These negative health effects had diminished by the period 1997–99, the authors found.

Falkenberg H et al (2013). “Short- and long-term effects of major organisational change on minor psychiatric disorder and self-rated health: results from the Whitehall II study”. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 12 June.

Suicide is an OH issue

It is essential that employers understand why workers commit suicide and how they can cut the risk, given the negative impact an employee’s suicide can have on colleagues and the organisation, according to a recent article. It argues that the topic is largely ignored in OH research and presents practical recommendations to reduce the risk of suicidal behaviour, focusing on the need to foster worth and belonging.

Boccio DE, Macari AM (2013). “Fostering worth and belonging: applying the interpersonal theory of suicide to the workplace”. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, published online 7 August.

Occupational asthma declines in the NHS

Control measures introduced in the NHS to reduce the risk of occupational asthma caused by latex and glutaraldehyde – used in medical disinfectants – have contributed to a decline in the condition over the past 20 years, according to a study of healthcare workers in the West Midlands. However, asthma related to cleaning products specifically is an emerging issue, the authors of the study concluded.

Walters GI et al (2013). “Agents and trends in health care workers’ occupational asthma”. Occupational Medicine, published online 9 August.

Legal news round-up

Limo firm fined for hand-arm vibration injuries

A manufacturer of hearses and limousines received a £10,000 fine and was ordered to pay £13,485 in costs after seven employees developed hand-arm vibration syndrome as a result of almost daily use of hand-held grinders, saws and pneumatic tools, all of which constantly vibrated. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that Woodall Nicholson Ltd failed to ensure that the risk from exposure to vibration was reduced to as low as was reasonably practicable and issued an Improvement Notice, with which the firm subsequently complied. HSE inspector Mike Lisle said: “Sadly, employees at Woodall Nicholson regularly used high-level vibrating equipment over several years that was badly maintained, with few controls in place over its use. This made it almost inevitable that they would develop the condition.”

High Court rules on firefighter deaths

A High Court judgment has found that East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service was responsible for the health and safety of employees and must pay compensation to the families of two firefighters killed in a blaze caused by exploding fireworks at Marlie Farm nearly seven years ago. The men’s trade union, the FBU, argued that the ruling echoes concerns it raised in the aftermath of the tragedy, including the employer’s failure to train staff on the specific risks of explosives.

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