Research news round-up

Smoking and allergies

Being a current smoker is a risk factor for sensitisation to workplace allergens, especially for those with high molecular weight. The Health and Safety Laboratory provides workplace allergy testing services and the researchers used the results from 695 subjects who had undergone serum-specific immunoglobulin E (lgE) tests to examine the link with smoking behaviours. Smokers were more likely than non-smokers to have positive specific lgE tests, and smoking was the only independent predictor of such a result in logistic regression.

In practice: Workplace health promotion activities should use information about the link between smoking and allergen sensitisation by including it in smoking cessation programmes, and emphasising the importance of allergen exposure control. Collaboration between testing laboratories can also provide useful information for analysis, the authors of the research suggest.

Smoking status and immunoglobulin E seropositivity to workplace allergens, Adisesh A et al, Occupational Medicine, published online 22 November 2010.

Multiple health conditions and productivity

The combined effects of multiple health conditions on productivity represent a significant proportion of total employee costs, according to this study of German workers. The study of 667 employees working in the headquarters of a multinational consumer goods manufacturer found that 34.8% experienced absence and 78.4% presenteeism for at least one health condition. The overall productivity loss due to 13 health conditions specified in a self-report questionnaire was more than 27 days per worker per year, representing 12.3% of employee capacity and around 8.78 million for the 1,298 employees at the site.

The cumulative impact and associated costs of multiple health conditions on employee productivity, Iverson D et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 30 November 2010.

Ergonomic devices in patient handling

Individual and organisational factors play a substantial role in the successful use of lifting devices in healthcare, according to this study of 274 nurses performing patient handling activities. The use of lifting devices was higher in nursing homes than in hospitals – used 68% and 59% of the time respectively. The primary factors influencing if individual nurses used devices were the nurses’ motivation, whether or not they had experienced a back complaint in the previous 12 months and the existence of strict guidance requiring the device to be used. Important organisational factors included convenience and easy access to devices and a supportive management climate.

Individual and organisational determinants of use of ergonomic devices in healthcare, Koppelaar E et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 23 November 2010.

QVC cuts stress-related absence

Multimedia retailer QVC has cut long-term absence by 20% in one year among its 2,000 staff following the development of a stress programme for its managers, according to a new HSE case study. The greatest impact of the programme was to raise awareness of stress among line managers, who felt better equipped to notice potential signs of stress and were more confident about actions to take as a result. Since the programme was delivered in January 2009, there has been a decrease in sickness absence at the organisation’s Knowsley operation from 5.31% in 2008 to 4.95% at the end of 2009, in addition to the cut in long-term absence.

QVC stress case study.

No consensus on lung function tests

An HSE-sponsored research report finds little consensus on how best to interpret health surveillance in silica-exposed workers, despite general agreement among professionals that surveillance is important for identifying early adverse respiratory effects.

There is consensus about the need to undertake baseline assessment of respiratory health for potentially exposed workers, followed by annual assessments. Also, professionals agree that these processes should use a standardised questionnaire and lung function measures, although the research accepts that an agreed standard questionnaire or data recording standard is currently not available. However, no consensus exists on how best to interpret lung function changes over time, specifically in the context of identifying early silicosis, the research finds.

A second piece of research among people with silicosis finds a statistically increased risk of obstructive and mixed changes with progressive massive fibrosis among the group – even after controlling for age, smoking and duration of exposure to silica.

“Health surveillance in silica exposed workers”, HSE research report no. 827.

Results of spirometry among individuals in a silicosis registry, Rosenman KD et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 30 November 2010.

What do OH physicians do all day?

Many of the activities undertaken by occupational physicians (OPs) are similar to those carried out by other specialties, for example, treating injury, while other, less frequently carried out ones, such as preventative examinations, mark out the uniqueness of the profession. This is the finding of research based on 260 OPs from a sample providing information on their tasks and skills at around 25 specific times. Clinical activities, particularly connected to musculoskeletal disorders, were the most frequent, followed by industry and health system management.

Injured patients, employers and healthy workers were the most common groups to benefit from the activities of OPs. OPs also frequently provided communication about prevention and work restrictions. There was a great deal of variation between the activities of OPs for most of the measures examined.

Occupational medicine practice: activities and skills of a national sample, Harber B et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online 30 November 2010.

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