Research and legal round-up

Sarah Silcox rounds up the latest OH-related research and legal news.


Workplace violence and MSDs

Workplace violence increases the risk of pain from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among nursing-home workers. Researchers asked almost 1,000 clinical nursing-home workers for self-reports of pain in the lower back, shoulders, wrists or hands, and knees, and information was also collected on exposure to physical assaults at work during the previous three months.

Almost half of the sample reported being assaulted at least once during the review period, and the prevalence of back pain increased from 40% among non-assaulted workers to 70% among those subjected to three or more assaults. Good workplace safety acted as a buffer, so that the impact of violence on MSDs was considerably less in a work environment perceived by nurses as safe.

In practice, the authors argue that this research emphasises the need to address violence as a workplace hazard through practical prevention measures, and in future aetiological research on MSDs.

Violence at the workplace increases the risk of musculoskeletal pain among nursing home workers, Miranda, H et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online first 27 September 2010.

Outdoor work and Parkinson’s disease

Men working outdoors have a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to this study of Danish workers. Information on the work history of almost 300 men with Parkinson’s disease was collected, and the researchers evaluated the extent of outdoor work carried out by the men as a proxy for exposure to sunlight (adequate levels of vitamin D have been linked to increased risks for neurodegenerative diseases).

Outdoor work and risk for Parkinson’s disease: a population-based case-control study, Kenborg, L et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online first 30 September 2010.

Incentives to invest in health

Economic incentive schemes encouraging employers to invest in risk prevention are a cost-effective option for governments looking to cut the burden of work-related ill health and accidents. Incentives operating in some EU countries include lower insurance premia, state subsidies and grants, tax breaks and preferential bank loan terms. A cost-benefit analysis was possible only in the case of three countries, but all three produced a positive ratio between euros invested and the return, in terms of reduced accidents and ill health. These case studies are already being used by other states to develop incentive schemes. For example, the Italian workers’ compensation authority has developed new arrangements taking into account the experiences and good practice of other states, including a scheme introduced in the German butchery sector.

Economic incentives to improve occupational safety and health: a review from the European perspective, September 2010.

Employers’ negative beliefs about cancer and work

Employers consistently report more negative beliefs about the impact of cancer and its treatment on work, and in general hold more negative illness perceptions about cancer in relation to work, than patients returning to work after treatment. The authors of this study conclude that a discrepancy between the beliefs of employers and cancer survivors could affect an employee’s management of their work, and on the organisation’s responsiveness to these needs, and return-to-work plans need to take these factors into account.

Cancer survivors’ and employers’ perceptions of working following cancer treatment, Grunfield E A et al, Occupational Medicine, published online first 20 September 2010.


Local authority worker exposed to asbestos

A local authority has been fined after sending an employee into a housing estate to deal with a water leak without warning him that asbestos was present. The HSE prosecuted Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council because it failed to warn the plumber that a survey showed the dangerous material was present in the sheltered housing complex where he was working. The employee found the leak in the ceiling space after removing an asbestos insulation board using a hand saw, standing directly underneath the tile while doing so for around 20 minutes. He was not wearing any personal protective clothing and was covered in dust following the work. The Borough Council pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, and was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £2,140 costs.

In practice: HSE inspector Mike Ford pointed out that this case is particularly disappointing, as “we expect more from local authorities who actually have a duty to enforce the law concerning asbestos, and should be setting a good example.”

Toxic gas death at Walkers site

Food giant Walkers Snack Foods and a chemical distributor have been fined a total of £350,000 after a driver was killed by a cloud of toxic gas at one of its locations. John Marriott, the driver, inadvertently mixed up the hoses on tanks of chemicals he was transferring from his lorry to a Walkers’ site, causing them to produce green fumes of chlorine dioxide. When he realised his error, he stopped the transfer and started to hose down the area, but was already seriously affected by the toxic gas, dying from its effects a month later. Walkers Snack Foods Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety legislation and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £38,971.

In practice: An HSE inspector points out that this incident was entirely preventable using basic risk assessment and clear evacuation procedures in the event of a chemical emergency. In addition, employees who tried to help Mr Marriott were not aware of the type of operation he was carrying out, nor the nature of the gas being released, and had no appropriate training.

Health-related threat is constructive dismissal

A manager for Clinton Cards has been awarded £100,414 compensation plus interest after returning to work following chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment for cancer to face the threat of a capability dismissal. Sally-Ann Burke claimed unfair dismissal against her former employer, arguing that on returning to work she was faced with the choice of resigning or disciplinary action because her manager said she was working at only 50% capacity. The Tribunal ruled that the reason for the dismissal was the fact that Ms Burke’s performance was not up to the standard her manager expected, which was clearly related to her disability.

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