Medical research rarely provides definitive answers to occupational hazards. What research provides are clues. These clues lead to additional research which, over time, can generate answers and solutions. But OHS specialists often do not have the luxury of waiting for an answer before taking some action to reduce risk and harm and often the clues are enough to take action or at least begin planning that action.
The Journal of the Society of Occupational Medicine is a treasure trove of clues. Below are some of those clues that may help OHS professionals in controlling hazards and anticipating others.
Man flu and stress
One team of researchers in Korea has identified
“Males experiencing work stress in job demand, job control and social support reported an increased occurrence of the common cold at follow-up but this association was not seen in females.”
As stress is an increasingly important element of workplace health and safety, this research indicates that what some are dismissing as “man flu” may have some validity as stressor indicators. Man flu may be perceived as men skiving off work or having an unjustified “doona day” but this research shows that the taking of leave on the basis of having a cold may be indicative not of an infection, or a feigned infection, but of a manifestation of stress. This may help in making a stronger case for the importance of absenteeism as an indicator of a personnel or cultural problem in a workplace.
An overview of shift-related illness
There has been considerable attention over the last few years on the possible effects of shiftwork on the health of workers. For decades the only issue focussed on in shiftwork was fatigue but general health and cancers are increasingly the focus of research. A team of Oxford researchers have provided a general summary of research data in this area and have found that:
“Published evidence is suggestive but not conclusive for an adverse association between night work and breast cancer but limited and inconsistent for cancers at other sites and all cancers combined. Findings on shift work, in relation to CVD [cardio-vascular disorders], metabolic syndrome and diabetes are also suggestive but not conclusive for an adverse relationship.”
The cautious equivocations in the results above are a good example of clues instead of answers but there is sufficient information here for OHS professionals to watch out for health problems in night shift workers.
“There is suggestive evidence for an association between night work and increased risks of breast cancer and between shift work and increased risks of CVD…..”
If a major aim and principle of workplace health and safety is to eliminate risks and hazards how will the OHS profession respond to this evidence? Will we monitor the levels of melatonin? Do we increase lighting levels and try to establish a new working cycle, as happens in battery farms? Will we not allow women to work night shift? What if a male night shift worker develops breast cancer? The OHS profession needs to start asking hard questions on the economic dominance of productivity, the philosophical dominance of risk management in some areas and acknowledge the increasing importance of sociological analysis of safety management.