New potential carcinogen and occupational asthma

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There are two reports of concern in the next edition of the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.  One (Cancer risks in chemical production workers exposed to 2-mercaptobenzothiazole – Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.041400) raises the increasing likelihood that 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, or MBT, could be carcinogenic.

The article reports on a study of workers in a rubber chemicals plant in North Wales.   It found that 

“Based on national statistics for expected death rates, workers exposed to MBT were twice as likely to die of gut (large intestine) and bladder cancers.

Based on national statistics for expected new cases of cancer, they were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer, and four times as likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer).”

The other article (Occupational exposures to asthma among nursing professionals Online First Occup Environ Med 2009; 10.1136/oem.2008.042382) is similarly worrying.  Moreso because the chemical products mentioned in the report are well-known substances, such as latex gloves and gluteraldehyde, and control measures are very well established.

“…those who regularly cleaned instruments were 67% more likely to report a diagnosis of asthma since starting their job.

And nurses who were regularly exposed to general cleaning products and disinfectants were 72% more likely to say they had been newly diagnosed with asthma, and 57% more likely to report symptoms similar to asthma.

Those nurses working with solvents and glues used in patient care were also 51% more likely to say they had symptoms similar to asthma.”

In both these circumstances occupational health and safety has established control measures that can reduce the harm from these products.  What they illustrate is that OHS professionals may apply a consistent standard of expectations that often strengthen as clients remain in one specific industrial demographic but workplaces, decades after hazards are known, have a highly variable level of safety and compliance.  This sounds obvious but specialisation can lead to complacency in advisers as much as customers.

It is also useful to note that the carcinogen research was in North Wales and the asthma study in Texas.  Both these countries have strong OHS legislation and a good amount of OHS resources but still unacceptable levels of occupational illness.  It is this level of resource and attention that has provided the chance for these studies to be undertaken.  

“The more we look, the more we find”

Kevin Jones

Evidence of horse racing risks

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The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has commented on an article in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) entitled “The incidence of race-day jockey falls in Australia, 2002-2006”.  The AMA summarises the report’s statistics

“Falls occurred at a rate of 0.42% in flat racing and 5.26% in jumps racing. Although most falls occurred pre- or post-race, falls occurring during the race resulted in the most severe injuries.”

However, the statistics, that can only be accessed fully by subscribers, should be looked at more closely in order to investigated the most appropriate control measures.  It should be noted that the risks for horses is not part of the report.

The report finds

“There were 3360 jockey falls from 748 367 rides. Falls occurred at a rate of 0.42 per 100 rides in flat races and 5.26 per 100 rides in jumps races. In flat racing, 54.6% (1694/3101) of falls occurred before the start of the race and 11.1% (344/3101) of falls occurred post-race.  The 34.3% (1063/3101) of falls that occurred during flat races resulted in 61.7% (516/836) of the injuries sustained.  In jumps racing, most falls occurred at a jump and 9.7% (25/259) of jockeys who fell were transported to hospital and/or declared unfit to ride.  There were five fatalities resulting from falls during the study period, all in flat racing.  Fall and injury rates were comparable with those found in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Japan.”

The authors found that

“Being a jockey carries a substantial risk of injury and death. Although rates of injury in Australia are not exceptional by international standards, there can be improvement to safety standards in the Australian racing industry.”

Most reports end with statements that seem blatantly obvious but it is worth considering the findings that the five jockey fatalities were “all in flat racing”. These finding would question the strategy of some safety lobbyists who focus on jumps racing.

The available information says that 85% of falls resulted from the jockey being dislodged.  More useful information would come from looking at the specific causes of the injuries – head trauma, shoulder injury, back…  This information is not publicly available but is crucial in determining what type of PPE jockey’s should wear, if any.  Much work is aimed at helmets and protective vests, and banning jumps racing with which the statistics from this report may assist.

WorkSafe Victoria’s guide on track safety mentions some track or barrier design changes.  It would be useful to know what injuries resulted from jockeys falling on railings in order to verify the value of the redesign recommendations.  Granted the WorkSafe recommendations don’t specifically address race day conditions but in terms of track design the situation is not relevant.

Specific information on jockey injuries in Victoria was reported to WorkSafe in 2006.  The report found

  • 67% of falls injuries recorded in the RVL [Racing Victoria Limited] data set are suffered by jockeys at race events;
  • 33% of falls injuries recorded in the RVL data set are to licensed jockeys at track work;
  • 43% of falls injuries recorded in the VWA [Victorian WorkCover Authority] data set are to track work riders (excluding licensed jockeys) at track work.

Control measures are recommended in the WorkSafe report, a report that was not referenced in the MJA article even though other work by one of the report’s authors, Steve Cowley, is mentioned.

All reports and investigations have their limitations and specific aims  but it is disappointing that the MJA article was more interested in benchmarking than proposing safety solutions.  The researcher’s aims for the MJA report was stated as

“… to determine the incidence of falls, injuries and fatalities occurring at race meetings in Australia, and to compare them with overseas rates.”

An opportunity was missed to provide some information on the safety changes that could reduce the injuries to, and fatalities of, jockeys.

Kevin Jones

A sort-of resolution for Paula Wriedt

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Paula Wriedt, a Tasmanian Member of Parliament who attempted suicide in August 2008, resigned on 18 January 2009.  According to her media statement

“I have made a significant recovery since my hospitalisation in August, but I believe it is in my best interests, and the interests of my family, to concentrate on improving my health away from the daily pressures of being a member of Parliament.

“This illness has had a significant impact on my life.

“The many demands I faced last year, on both a professional and personal level, meant I neglected to take stock of my health until it was too late.

“During this time, I made a mistake by forming an inappropriate relationship with a member of my staff. This had significant implications for the families involved, and I am not proud of my actions.

“I deeply regret the hurt that has been caused by this.”

She goes on to speak positively of undertaking meaningful work outside of politics.  It is hoped that Paula does not feel obliged to follow other politicians into promoting depression support services.  For most Australians Paula Wriedt will be associated with her affair and suicide attempt.  Tasmanians should remember her as a good parliamentarian, as mentioned by the current Premier David Bartlett (who is only slightly older than Paula at 41), and for her achievements in the education portfolio.  

Kevin Jones

Other post concerning Paula’s situation are available by searching for “Wriedt” in the field below.

Absence management survey results

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On January 8 2009, the Mercer’s 2008 Pan-European Health & Benefit Report was released.  It had some useful information about the causes of workplace absenteeism in Europe.  The information was compiled in 2008 so is as current as can be but also occurred in a  period of severe economic unrest.

As with all studies, the applicability to other nations and regions is up for debate but the data is a great starting point for discussion on managing these issues in workplaces.

According to the available report information

“Musculoskeletal conditions were identified by 78 percent of respondents as the cause of most long-term absences.  Thirty-one percent specifically referenced lower back pain and 47 percent other musculoskeletal conditions.  Stress and mental health issues (52 percent) and cancer conditions (20 percent) were also featured amongst the highest disability causes.”

By looking at policies and practices in the multi-jurisdictional structure of Europe, the demographic variations and management initiatives may be applicable elsewhere.

As Steve Clements of Mercer says

“Absence management remains haphazard at best.  Targeted absence management policies and procedures are by no means universally applied, and even the ability to quickly and accurately measure absence remains fairly poor.  Many employers offer a broad range of health-related benefits, but their presence is driven by recruitment and retention, and it appears there is only sporadic evidence of integration of these benefits within a broader employee health and wellness or absence management agenda.  At a time when cost is under the microscope, employee absence remains under-managed and presents a great opportunity for savings and improved productivity.”

Kevin Jones

Gillard’s plans for new OHS agency

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In an interview with the Australian Financial Review of 20 January 2009, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, has indicated a preference for the Workplace Relations Ministerial Council to “create an executive agency that did not need the approval of parliament”. 

The article goes on to report Gillard’s OHS plan

“the states would use executive powers to create another regulator to control the new laws to avoid the need for approval from the federal parliament…”

The process she proposes has broader ramifications for the Rudd government’s reform agenda, as can be indicated by the placement of the article on the cover of the conservative newspaper, the Australian Financial Review

Gillard’s proposal is not ideal and as the AFR editorial points out, it is the inflexibility of the Coalition and Greens that has put this option on the Minister’s agenda.  It is an important move and one that is likely to receive support from the OHS professional organisations who have lobbied for a central OHS regulatory agency.

The next step is to see what the review panel into model OHS law recommends in its report due to be handed to the government at the end of January 2009.

[The articles are not available on line as AFR.com is a subscription-only service]

Kevin Jones