Occupational health research round-up: September 2019

Climate change. Shutterstock

Rise in climate change-led occupational ‘heat stress’ cuts world productivity

The rise in global temperatures resulting from climate change will increase the risk of occupational “heat stress”, according to a new ILO study. The proliferation of so-called “urban heat islands”, areas of concentrated heat inside cities resulting from growing populations and urbanisation, will further intensify the impact of heatwaves, aggravating the risks to workers. Heat stress, the report predicts, will reduce total global working hours by 2.2% and global GDP by $2,400 billion in 2030 (up from a cost of $280 billion in 1995). The predicted impact of heat stress is uneven, with Southern Asia and Western Africa set to experience even greater hits to GDP and working hours. Sectors are also affected differentially, with agriculture and construction set to be the worst affected.

Working on a warmer planet: the effect of heat stress on productivity and decent work”, ILO, July 2019, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_711919.pdf

Occupational exposure and neurodegenerative disease

Exposure to pesticides increases the risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease by at least 50% according to this systematic review. The study explores the relative risk (RR) of developing such a condition, for example, Parkinson’s disease, following occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs), metals (primarily lead) and pesticides. It finds elevated risks for all three groups of exposure; for example, exposure to lead involves a 50% increased risk for Parkinson’s, and exposure to EMFs involved a 10% raised relative risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

L-G Gunnarsson and L Bodin. “Occupational exposures and neurodegenerative diseases – a systematic literature review and meta-analyses”, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2019, 16, 337.

Parental occupational exposures and autism risk

Maternal exposure to solvents may increase the risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this study of the parents of 537 children with ASD and 414 typically developing children concludes. The authors state: “These results are consistent with a growing body of evidence indicating that environmental and occupational exposures may be associated with ASD.”

E C McCanlies et al. “The CHARGE study: an assessment of parental occupational exposures and autism spectrum disorder”, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, published online 27 June 2019.

Efficacy of respiratory protective equipment

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) should not be relied on as the sole measure protecting workers against the risks of occupational asthma, according to this study of 20 employees with sensitizer-induced occupational asthma working in a car engine factory. The authors argue that protective equipment use “cannot be relied on to replace source control in workers with occupational asthma, and that monitoring post-RPE introduction is needed.”

A Ilgaz et al. “Occupational asthma; the limited role of air-fed respiratory protective equipment”, Occupational Medicine, published online 3 July 2019.

Work participation and sciatica

Sciatica impacts on the ability to work and may lead to a reduced return to work. This systematic review of seven studies seeks to identify factors making it more likely that a worker with the condition is able to return to work and maintain work participation. It finds that younger patients, those in better general health, and those who have less depression and mental stress, are more likely to experience a successful rehabilitation. Those whose treating physician expects surgery to be beneficial and those who are less fearful of physical movement also have a better return-to-work prognosis, the review finds.

T Oosterhuis et al. “Systematic review of prognostic factors for work participation in patients with sciatica”, Occupational & Environmental Health, published online 11 July 2019.

Impact of workplace injury on families

Work-related injury and illness amongst the precariously employed can have significant effects on the families of those immediately affected, according to this Canadian interview-based study. Precariously employed injured workers felt caught between self-interested employers and disinterested workers’ compensation schemes and, in some cases, this had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. The workers’ difficulties returning to work challenged the financial security of their families and affected their normal routines. While some workers received emotional and practical support from their family members, others saw their families fall apart when the pressure of chronic disability and unemployment proved to be too much.

S Senthanar et al. “Return to work and ripple effects on family of precariously employed injured workers”, Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, published online 15 July 2019.

Gratitude programme cuts psychological distress

A workplace gratitude programme might be effective in cutting employees’ psychological distress and improving their self efficacy, but has little impact on work engagement, according to this study of an intervention involving 145 Japanese employees. The three-week gratitude intervention included gratitude lists and behavioural gratitude expressions and the study aimed to examine its impact on work engagement, self-efficacy, psychological distress and job performance.

Y Komase et al. “Effects of a newly-developed gratitude intervention program on work engagement among Japanese workers: a pre- and post-test study”, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 12 July 2019.

Pedometers increase physical activity

The distribution of 21,211 pedometers as part of a microgrant scheme to increase workplace physical activity in Australia achieved good levels of adoption and implementation, and significant increases in physical activity amongst the employees affected, according to this evaluation. Half of the workplaces involved said they would continue to promote physical activity beyond the pedometer challenge, although employee and workplace levels of maintenance in the scheme were mixed and need to be improved, the authors conclude.

M J Duncan et al. “A RE-AIM evaluation of a workplace physical activity microgrant initiative: the 10,000 steps workplace challenge”, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 12 July 2019.

Financial wellness programmes

Workplace financial wellness programmes are a relatively new addition to the benefit package and this study suggests many of the early adopting employers appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to help employees. It adds that the success of such programmes may depend on promotion by organisational champions.

E G Frank-Miller et al. “Financial wellness programs in the workplace: employer motivations and experiences”, Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, published online 19 June 2019.

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