Safety begins to converge to focus on the individual

If further information about the increasing inter-relationships between psychosocial health and physical health, organisational culture and a worker’s mental  health was needed, a new study from Sweden provides convincing evidence.

The research, a study of 81 research projects into the links between psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal disorders, was reported in by Eurofound on 10 September 2010.  It found, among other issues that

“… The link between an unfavourable psychosocial environment and the prevalence of MSDs is well established, with a number of studies demonstrating that high stress at work is connected to increased risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. It is however possible for an individual to work with a high level of stress and not develop any symptoms or diseases. The physiological reaction to stress seems to be connected to previous experiences and genetic factors. The reaction to stress also depends on psychosocial factors in the workplace. People who are subject to bullying or discrimination often suffer a prolonged stress reaction of both a physiological and a psychological nature.”

It also seemed to support some of the advocates for “resilience” training by stating

“Interventions at the individual level should provide the individual with the required skill and energy necessary to strengthen and develop their own resources to better withstand the stresses and pressures that could lead to ill-health.”

However, the development of these personal resources should occur in:

“… an open and creative work climate, with mutual responsibility for work, co-workers and working conditions.”

I would suggest that this latter strategy has the better chance of achieving the long-lasting cultural changes that many companies and safety professionals are seeking.

The researchers support the caution about relying on individual and ergonomic intervention strategies and say

“…the results are not as positive as one might expect.  This could be explained by fact that interventions that target psychosocial issues in the workplace or an entire organisation have been neglected in the past.”

They acknowledge that research in the area of organisations interventions is scarce but did provide some nuggets of thought-provoking information

“Research has shown that overtime and high demands at work are the most important factors in explaining lower productivity among computer users when lifestyle factors such as low physical activity are discounted.”

“…. success in reducing MSDs has been shown to require intervention beyond the ‘individual’ level, that is intervention that targets reducing high demands and stressful work assignments. “

And rehabilitation is, thankfully, included in the report

“A number of the studies examined in the Swedish research concluded that a supportive working environment, employee participation, and cooperation between management and the employee all increase the potential for successful rehabilitation.”

This type of information is invaluable as Australia enters into its annual Safe Work Australia Week phase of promotions, conferences and OHS events.

The lesson that I would most take from this report is worker safety has never been more obviously interdisciplinary and perhaps the various health and safety professions are undergoing a similar level of convergence to that which has occurred in information technology with the emergence of the iPad. (Yes I have one)  Health promotion, mental health, safety engineering, human resources, rehabilitation and many other traditionally separate (and competing) disciplines are converging to focus on the personal, the individual and we will all be better for it.

Kevin Jones

1 thought on “Safety begins to converge to focus on the individual”

  1. A very worthwhile report that should confirm what is already known, the trick is to get it all happening at the coal face and that will take a massive, continuous, practical program aimed at the 100\’s of thousands of employers and millions of employees all at the same time, selling the same message and providing practical, easily implemented standard operating procedures to achieve outcomes desired. (plenty of work to be done here by safety professionals)

    Maybe there is far too much conflicting noise out there for those that need to hear the message, because it certainly is not getting through, despite the protestations of many. The statistics do not lie in terms of reported injuries.

    There is a real opportunity for a national statutory body to take control of this and make it happen.

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