Occupational health research update

European employers face stress challenge

Although almost 80% of European managers express concern about work-related stress, only 26% of their organisations have procedures in place to deal with the issue. This is the headline finding of a large European study of new and emerging workplace health and safety risks, covering 36,000 managers and health and safety representatives in public and private sector organisations employing at least 10 people.

Just over 40% of managers find it more difficult to tackle psychological risks than other health and safety issues, primarily due to the sensitivity of the issue and lack of awareness. The management of psychological risks at work is more common in the health and social care sector, and in large organisations more generally. Southern European countries, with the exception of Spain, show less awareness of the issue and are less likely to take action to manage risks to mental health.

Those employers with procedures in place typically handle psychological risks by providing training and implementing changes in work organisation. Only half of organisations inform workers of risks to mental health.

Future reports in the survey series will cover psychological risk management, including drivers and barriers.

Lab work pregnancy risk

Female laboratory workers are more likely to have low birth weight babies than a comparison group of teachers, according to this study of Finnish workers.

The authors suggest that lab workers are commonly exposed to chemical, biological and physical agents, and can also adopt poor postures for long periods and be engaged in moving and handling – all factors that may increase the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes in female staff.

  • ‘Laboratory work and adverse pregnancy outcomes’, Halliday-Bell J A et al, Occupational Medicine 2010 60(4), pp310-313.

Ill-health reporting

The way that occupational physicians (OPs) and general practitioners (GPs) report cases of work-related ill health among patients differs markedly, highlighting variations in OH provision and its subsequent influence on the collection of ill-health data.

The researchers examined reporting patterns among family and occupational doctors to The Health and Occupation Reporting (THOR) network, finding that OPs were 78% more likely to report a psychological case than GPs. OPs were also 18% more likely to report work-related ill health among female patients, but this was partly due to the fact that OP services are more prevalent in sectors dominated by women, such as health and social care. The authors conclude that OPs are best placed to report on health and work relationships but, because they are thinly spread, reports from suitably trained GPs are needed to help inform on sectors and areas of employment where OH provision is sparse.

Performance-driven staff and presenteeism

Young workers with highly performance-based self-esteem are more likely to turn up to work when ill (presenteeism) than other staff, according to this study of young Swedish adults.

Individuals who are driven by the need to perform turn up for work more frequently, even after controlling for general health, psychological and physical demands, economic problems and main occupation. The result is even more marked among staff in poor health. The effect of performance-based self-esteem on sickness presenteeism was four times higher among individuals with poor health when compared to those with good health.

  • Pushing oneself too hard: performance-based self-esteem as a predictor of sickness presenteeism among young adult women and men, a cohort study’, Love Jesper et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online ahead of print, 2 June 2010.

Airport needlestick injuries

Airport staff are at particular risk of needlestick injuries due to the improper disposal of insulin needles among travellers, resulting in potential blood-borne pathogen exposure. Over a six-year period, 14 needlestick injury cases were seen by the OH department of a large US airport, most of which involved insulin needle injuries to the hands of workers cleaning lavatories on aircraft or in the airport. No cases of hepatitis B, C or HIV seroconversion were reported, although the researchers found that follow-up was typically incomplete.

Stonemason receives £56,000 for HAVS

A stonemason who was forced to stop working in his specialist trade after his hands were left permanently damaged as a result of using vibrating tools at work has received £56,000 in compensation. The 46-year-old man was left with hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) after working in the trade for 10 years, and now works as a delivery driver. His employer admitted liability and settled out of court.

Oliver Collett from Thompsons Solicitors commented that the award of £56,000 was considerable for this type of condition, but added that the stonemason concerned was forced to give up his career and take a substantial pay cut. “This employer ignored clear rules about properly assessing the levels of vibration and the amount of time workers use vibrating tools,” he said. “As a result, our client’s career is at an end.”

Staff hernia results from poor moving and handling

A painter at plant company Caterpillar needed major surgery to correct a hernia after moving a 12-foot high and 30-foot long walkway to access a work area.

Keith Robinson, who had worked at the company for 20 years, attempted to move the walkway in July 2007 and June 2008, and on both occasions it jammed, causing him to suffer a strain injury. He developed an umbilical hernia, which was operated on in November 2008, and Robinson is currently recovering from a second operation necessitated by complications.

Robinson’s solicitors argued that the problem with the walkway had been highlighted to managers over a period of three years, but no corrective measures had been taken. Caterpillar settled out of court, and Robinson was awarded £7,000 in compensation.

by Sarah Silcox

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