Research/legal news round-up

Research news round-up…

Smoking and disability

Smoking is associated with an increased risk of occupational disability, particularly disability due to respiratory, cardiovascular and mental diseases, and cancer and spinal conditions, according to a study of construction workers. Overall, 2,643 cases of occupational diseases were observed in the group of 14,483 male construction workers surveyed, with spinal conditions being the most common cause of disability (responsible for 21% of cases). Clear relationships were seen between levels of smoking and occupational disability due to all causes, and particularly strong associations were seen between heavy smoking (20 or more cigarettes a day) and disability due to mental and respiratory diseases.

Smoking Habits and Occupational Disability: A cohort study of 14,483 construction workers, Claessen H et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010; 67; pp.84-90.

Migraines and work

Chronic and episodic migraines are responsible for significant amounts of lost productive time at work, according to a study of American sufferers. Data on more than 11,000 people from a 2005 study of migraine prevalence and prevention was examined in association with information on missed work hours plus reduced productivity hours. People with chronic migraine (CM) were 19% less likely to be in paid employment compared with those with three or fewer headache days a month. Those with CM lost on average 4.6 hours a week due to headaches, compared with 1.1 hours for those with three or less headache days a month. People with between 10 and 14 headache days a month, or with CM, accounted for 9.1% of employed migraine sufferers and 35% of overall lost work time (sick leave and unemployment).

Employment and Work Impact of Chronic Migraine and Episodic Migraine, Stewart W F et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, January 2010, 52;1, pp.8-14.

Multi-site MSDs and ability

Workers with more than one musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) site (part of the body) face considerable threats to their work ability, according to a study of Finnish adults. MSD pain often occurs at multiple sites on the body, and the aim of this study was to examine any associations between multi-site pain and self-rated work ability and retirement plans among working people. Single-site pain was reported by a third of the sample, while 20%, 9% and 4% reported pain in two, three and four sites respectively. Self-rated work ability was poorest among older workers reporting multi-site pain, and among those aged 40 to 49 stating that it was their intention to retire early.

Musculoskeletal Pain at Multiple Sites and its Effects on Work Ability in a General Working Population, Miranda H et al, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, published online.

Poor sleep and productivity

People with insomnia and insufficient sleep syndrome have significantly worse productivity, performance and safety outcomes at work, according to a study of 4,188 employees at four US corporations. Workers were classified according to sleep patterns: insomnia, insufficient sleep syndrome, at-risk of poor sleep, and good sleep. Those with insomnia had the highest rate of sleep medication use, while the other groups were more likely to use non-medication treatments. Productivity losses attributable to sleep-related fatigue were estimated at round £1,245 per employee a year.

The Cost of Poor Sleep: Workplace productivity loss and associated costs, Rosekind M R et al, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, January 2010, 52;1, pp.91-98.

Legal news round-up…

Bullied NHS worker paid £150,000 compensation

An NHS trust in Wales has been found liable in the case of a bullied NHS manager who was awarded £150,000 in compensation. The trust employee, Nanette Bowen, had worked for the Prince Phillip Hospital in Swansea for 28 years, and had worked her way up the ranks to the point where she reported directly to its chief executive. However Bowen suffered a nervous breakdown after she was harassed over a three-year period by a new manager, Eric Lewis. During this period, her responsibility for hiring employees was removed; she was not allowed to pass on information to staff without Lewis’s consent; and was subjected to daily monitoring. As a result, she was signed off work on long-term sick leave with stress and panic attacks, and on one occasion was taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack.

Mental health charity fined in lone worker death case

A mental health charity, Mental Health Matters, has been fined £30,000 plus costs of £20,000 after a service user killed a lone worker in its employment. Ashleigh Ewing had started working for the charity just six months before her death, and the fatal attack by service user Ronald Dixon occurred on the final day of her probation period. Support worker Ewing was visiting Dixon at his home in Newcastle when she was stabbed to death. The prosecution in the case brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) told Mr Justice Keith that Dixon’s mental health was known to be deteriorating, and that Ewing’s employer failed both to respond to a number of warning signs and to provide the employee with the level of protection that the nature of the job warranted.

  • In practice: This case highlights the need for employers and their advisers to carry out risk assessments for staff required to work alone or in remote locations. The HSE points out that lone working is not intrinsically unsafe or unhealthy, but that the law requires employers and others to think about, and deal with, any particular health and safety risks it presents.

Toxic mercury exposure

A Scottish recycling company and a director have been fined a total of £145,000 for exposing workers to toxic mercury fumes at a site in West Yorkshire. Electrical Waste Recycling Group (EWR) recycles electrical equipment, including fluorescent light tubes containing mercury and TV sets and monitors containing lead. Poor ventilation at a plant in Huddersfield resulted in staff being exposed to potentially harmful emissions from both substances. Twenty employees had levels of mercury above UK guidance levels, and five showed extremely high levels as a result of the exposure between late 2007 and summer 2008. EWR was fined £140,000 with £25,127 costs for breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, three separate breaches of the COSHH Regulations 2002, and one breach of the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002. Company director Craig Thompson was also fined £5,000 for a COSHH breach.

  • In practice: HSE inspector Jeanne Morton says the risks associated with handling mercury have been known for generations, so it is all the more unacceptable for an employer to ignore the risks created by its work, to fail to develop plans for safe working, or to check employees’ health after exposure.

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