A spat has recently emerged on one of the safety discussion forums in Linkedin. The catalyst was a statement that
The source of this data, not disclosed at the time of the original post, was a company that sells
“…a great tasting, scientifically proven mix of cutting-edge branch chain amino acids and low Gi carbohydrates for sustained energy release, combined with a formulated blend of electrolytes for optimum hydration in harsh Australian conditions”.
The discussion quickly refocused from the original safety concern to one of unreliability of statements; sadly the discussion also became personal and abusive. but the discussion raised two discussion points:
- The reliability of statements on the internet, and
- the issue of hydration and work performance.
It is an established practice to be suspicious of all information on the internet. This is an extension of the wise advice to be questioning of all we hear, all we know and all we believe, but in the context of the modern technological world. There are some internet sites and information sources that are more reliable than others but even those will not be 100% reliable (refer to some of the discussion on plagiarism, and academic dishonesty. A particularly useful paper on the latter was a UNESCO report from 2003).
One could argue that the social media, of which this blog is an example, is inherently unreliable. Certainly it can be easily manipulated. But a questioning approach to all the information we consume, should reduce the risk of mistake or, at least, place us in a reasonably practicable position, even if it is embarrassing.
In the context of the quote above, there is no indication that the quote was an example of mischievous marketing as the poster works for a company unrelated to the product. However, modern advertising can be very sneaky and we need to be aware of the possibility of advertising whenever on the internet.
The relationship between hydration, well-being and productivity is far more contentious. We, the Westernised countries, are being told that we do not drink enough water.
It is important to note that a particularly persistent statement about hydration is a myth. Snopes.com has identified that there is no foundation to the commonly heard statement that:
“The average person needs to drink eight glasses of water per day to avoid being “chronically dehydrated.””
The body has a fairly effective system to regulate hydration and, as Snopes.com advises, drink when you feel thirsty. Of course, this is dependent on an employer providing sufficient resources and time to do this – that’s where the OHS and Industrial Relations professionals step in.
The Linkedin discussion directed readers to a thesis about heat stress in the mining sector. The thesis covers a large number of work-related issues but does make statements such as:
“The primary contributors to heat stress include the climatic conditions, the intensity of work performed, and the clothing worn.” (page 73)
On the issue of hydration, the thesis’ author, Andrew Phillip Hunt, writes
“When work is performed under high levels of heat stress, particularly if the individual is of low fitness and poor body composition, there is a high risk that heat strain will be excessive.” (page 80)
“Dehydration is a modifiable factor as hydration can be restored through fluid and food consumption. It was thus considered a temporary factor for heat intolerance.” (page 81)
No one research paper should be used as conclusive evidence and Hunt’s thesis needs to be considered in a broad range of research but it does remind us that there are other factors that need consideration beyond climatic conditions; one of them, clothing, seems to be often overlooked.
Perhaps the biggest objection to the original statistical post in Linkedin was the simplicity of the statement. There was no mention of other factors, such as clothing or general fitness of the worker, or the intensity of the work task or acclimatisation. The product was seen as a cure-all for dehydration rather than part of a work health and safety strategy.
The website in the original post includes statements that desperately require the inclusion of references to the source data. This paragraph in particular, the source of the original post’s graphic, is dramatic:
“3% dehydration can slow your reaction time to the same extent as 0.08 Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). At 0.08 BAC you are 5 times more likely to crash your car, which begs the question – how much more likely are you to have a workplace accident when dehydrated?”
It’s a good question but the argument would be better served if an answer was included. And the 3% figure? It is easy to include a footnote to the source, especially on a website. The lack of such a link casts doubt on the statistic. Sloppy marketing for short term advantage.
(SafetyAtWorkBlog continues to be critical of comparing workplace activities and risks to those of driving vehicles)
In a summary (page 103) Hunt writes:
“Dehydration, and poor aerobic fitness and body composition are key factors that raise the heat strain experienced by an individual. Acclimatisation also has an important influence, with acclimatised individuals showing reduced heat strain. Finally factors such as age and gender should be considered when evaluating heat strain….”
Determining the risks associated with working in heat is not simple
Fit For Work
Another element in the initial post is that being dehydrated equates to being unfit for work. The issue of being “fit for work” has been contentious for years and will be increasingly so as more attention is given to psychosocial well being and cognitive functions.
It seems that “fit for work” has originated primarily from the return-to-work processes (and reached a peak in the UK over the “fit-note“) but as it becomes a determinant for those starting work each day and a more overt OHS consideration in hazard reduction, it will require a clearer definition.
The Safe Work Australia has many mentions of “fit for work” but only one publication expressly discusses the issue, the 2007 publication “Work-Related Alcohol and Drug Use: A Fit for Work Issue“.
It is time that this commonly used term is formalised so that the OHS context of its use is clearer.
The discussion, and sniping, generated by a single post on a LinkedIn discussion forum is indicative of the risks and traps in using social media but such discussions can also illustrate deficiencies in knowledge and understanding of OHS and workplace concepts. All professions must be prepared to question statements so that myths do not perpetuate to the detriment of the profession. The OHS profession remains comparatively young and there are many gaps in definitions of basic concepts. These gaps may be seen by some as opportunities for marketing. Others may seem them as opportunities for research. Either way there is a need for clarity, and a need to seek this clarity in a polite, constructive manner.