Preventing cancer caused by work environments

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a new guide on preventing work cancers, a topic that the ETUI feels has not received sufficient attention from EU policies over the past decade. The guide, Preventing work cancers – a workplace health priority, looks at the history and causes of work-induced cancers and provides tools for collective prevention.

According to the ETUI report:

“Cancer kills around 1.2 million people each year in the European Union. Between 65 000 and 100 000 of these deaths are believed to be directly caused by working conditions. Others are the result of environmental exposures which, in many cases, are themselves related to firms’ business activities.”

Startlingly, work-related cancer is by far the main cause of death by working conditions in Europe, and these deaths are predominantly down to controllable factors such as organisations’ technical choices about substances and processes. Working with asbestos, certain chemicals and carcinogens can put people at high risk of contracting work-related cancers, unless the working environment is well-controlled. And, in many cases, it’s not easy to prove categorically that cancer has been caused by work.

So what can employers do to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible? Could dangerous materials be substituted for others, could personal protective equipment (PPE) be provided for workers, or could health surveillance be carried out to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment)? Ideally, employers would keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Risk assessment | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Men’s health at work

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

This week’s National Men’s Health Week, led by the Men’s Health Forum, focuses on men’s health at work. People who work spend a significant proportion of their lives in the workplace, and men are twice as likely to work full-time as women, so generally spend even longer in the workplace than their female counterparts. Therefore it is vital that men’s health is protected at work as it is often here that the first signs of mental or physical distress become apparent.

Not only do men generally spend longer in the workplace than women, but, on the whole, they wait longer before going to see a doctor with a health condition, so it’s easy to see how mental and physical health conditions are at risk of going unchecked.

Understandably, many managers feel uncomfortable broaching the subject of a person’s health with them for fear of causing offence, and mental health issues can be particularly difficult to talk about. However, employers do have a duty of care towards employees, which means that they need to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff. Fostering an open environment in the workplace, in which people feel confident about voicing their health concerns, and promoting the health of staff through wellness programmes, is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for information about health and work, why not take a look at the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base to find out more about keeping your organisation healthy and productive?

Posted in Employee Sickness | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Electronic cigarettes – should they be covered by the smoking ban?

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) are gaining in popularity. According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) an estimated 2.1 million adults in Great Britain currently use them. There has been a substantial rise in the number of current smokers who have tried electronic cigarettes since 2010. In 2010, only 8.2% of current smokers had ever tried them, but this figure had risen to 51.7% by 2014.

E-cigarettes are essentially battery-powered devices that replicate smoking behaviour (without the use of tobacco) with a combination of nicotine, flavour and other chemicals. Many claim that they are very useful when giving up smoking because they allow users to feel as though they are smoking, and to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine they inhale over time.

However, there has been some controversy surrounding them, mainly because they haven’t been rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness. In 2008 the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Diseases and Mental Health Cluster, Dr Ala Alwan, made clear the World Health Organization’s stance on e-cigarettes:

“The electronic cigarette is not a proven nicotine replacement therapy…..WHO has no scientific evidence to confirm the product’s safety and efficacy.”

Whilst smokers are obliged to smoke outdoors since the smoking ban in enclosed workplaces came into force in July 2007, many smokers of e-cigarettes do not consider themselves to be obliged to adhere to these rules because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. However, critics of the e-cigarette argue that smoking e-cigarettes in public places risks normalising smoking behaviour, and may in fact cause negative health effects (e.g. putting pregnant women at risk) because they haven’t been sufficiently tested.

So, the question of whether employers should allow staff to smoke e-cigarettes within the workplace is a tricky one to answer. Certainly discouraging smoking in the general sense is in the interests of staff, employers and organisations, if staff are to remain healthy and productive. And looking after the health of workers is precisely what the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base to do – take a look to find out more.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ensuring equality in the workplace for those who are deaf or have some form of hearing loss

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

According to figures from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf), one in six people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss of which approximately one third are below retirement age – and these figures are growing year on year.

Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss will be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and would be protected from discrimination under this legislation. Employers need to ensure that they do not treat a person with hearing loss any less favourably than any other employee, which may involve making reasonable adjustments. It is also advisable for employers to ensure that team members have been given some form of deaf awareness training to overcome potential communication barriers.

An interesting article on the Action on Hearing Loss’s website, which reports the results of research carried out to mark this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (19-25 May), states that three out of four people with hearing loss feel their employment opportunities are more limited than their hearing peers, with almost 80% naming employers as the major barrier. Clearly, this is a troubling statistic, and suggests that much more needs to be done to protect the rights of people with hearing loss in the workplace.

There are many useful resources available on the broad subject of hearing loss and, more specifically, protecting the rights of individuals with hearing loss in the workplace. Some of these include Action on Hearing Loss, the British Deaf Association and the Royal Association for Deaf People. Or for information on a whole range of work health-related topics, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

Posted in Employee Sickness | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Protecting sufferers of ME and other long-term conditions against discrimination

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

It was ME Awareness Day on 12 May. ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) is a condition that is shrouded in lack of understanding to a great degree. To begin with, there is some dispute as to the correct name to give the condition. Some people use the term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ (CFS) because the main symptom for many is often fatigue and the condition is chronic. However, many sufferers prefer the name ME because the term ‘fatigue’ is generic and does reflect the different and severe nature of their fatigue. In addition, fatigue is not always the main symptom (others include muscle pain, problems with short-term memory and concentration, sleep disturbances, emotional imbalances). To further complicate matters, the causes of the condition are unknown (possibly a viral infection that triggers it), and there are no tests to definitively diagnose the illness.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the condition can be extremely debilitating. The symptoms can range from relatively mild, to extremely severe. Somebody with mild symptoms may need the odd day off to rest when the fatigue is bad. Those with severe symptoms, however, have reduced mobility and can sometimes only carry out the very simplest of everyday tasks. Unfortunately for sufferers, despite having been recognised as a neurological condition by the World Health Organization since 1969, it’s believed by many to be a ‘made up’ condition, partly because the condition fluctuates, and partly because the symptoms can vary so greatly and can’t be categorised as clear-cut ME symptoms.

Because ME is a long-term and fluctuating condition, sufferers are likely to be protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if the ME has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If they meet the requirements of the Act, employers need to ensure that they do not treat them any less favourably than any other employee. Information about organisations’ responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, as well as on a vast array of other work health-related topics, can be found on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

Posted in Employee Sickness | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The flexible working rules are changing

Photo by Martin Nikolaj Christensen via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Martin Nikolaj Christensen via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

This week, which saw Flexible Working Awareness Day, seems like a good time to be writing something about the potential benefits of flexible working.  Flexible working covers everything from flexibility in terms of the work location (e.g. home working) as well as flexible contracts such as temporary contracts, part-time work, job sharing, etc. When managed correctly by organisations and staff, flexible working can offer a whole host of benefits.

Advantages of flexible working to staff include:

  • the possibility to create a better work/life balance;
  • reduced childcare costs;
  • reduced travel costs (i.e. those with a long commute who can work from home at times);
  • reduced stress (e.g. by travelling to work outside peak times).

Advantages of flexible working to organisations include:

  • reduced absenteeism;
  • an improved ability to hold onto key staff;
  • an increase in commitment and productivity.

Currently, employers are obliged to consider requests for flexible working arrangements from employees who:

  • have 26 weeks’ continuous employment on the date at which the application is made;
  • have children under the age of 16 (or 18, if their child is disabled);
  • carry out certain carer responsibilities.

However, the flexible working arrangements will be amended on 30 June 2014 to give the right to flexible working to all employees after 26 weeks of service, whether or not they have children or are caring for a relative. Employers will have a duty to consider all requests in a reasonable manner. However, employers will have the flexibility to refuse requests on business grounds.

Working more flexibly makes it possible for people to remain in work, even when other aspects of their lives (health conditions, family commitments, etc.) would make it difficult for them to be in the workplace during regular working hours. For more information on flexible working, and the process that must be followed by organisations and employees, see the Gov.UK website. Or for information about health issues in the workplace, see the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Risk assessments during pregnancy or when breastfeeding

Photo by Tatiana Vdb via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Tatiana Vdb via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Many women choose to continue working while pregnant or return to work whilst still breastfeeding, and there is no reason why being pregnant or having young children should stop women from continuing their employment. In order to facilitate this, employers are obliged to take action to ensure that these women are not exposed to any significant risk whilst at work.

The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) includes regulations that protect the health and safety of new and expectant mothers who work. Every employer has a duty to make a suitable and sufficient general written assessment of the health and safety risks its employees are exposed to whilst at work, including those who, in future, could become expectant mothers. This means that any significant risks to unborn children and expectant mothers should be identified, even at the early stages.

Pregnancy risk assessment

On receiving written notification of a pregnancy, employers should not delay in undertaking a specific assessment – workplace conditions that may have been acceptable prior to pregnancy may no longer be suitable during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding. What is covered in this assessment will vary greatly depending on the type of workplace, the kind of work the employee is doing, etc. Employers will then be required to regularly monitor and review any assessment made to take into account possible risks that may occur at different stages of pregnancy. See our guide on new and expectant mothers at work for more information, which includes a sample pregnancy risk assessment.

Removing or reducing risks found

Employers are then obliged to try to remove any risks that have been highlighted by the risk assessment, including possibly reducing hours to reduce stress, agreeing more frequent rest breaks, excluding heavy lifting or long periods of standing up, etc. Employers must give information on the risks found and the protective measures to be taken.

If the risks still remain, employers will need to alter working conditions or hours of work, if it is reasonable to do so and would avoid the risk. If this is not possible, or the risk cannot be avoided, employees should be offered a suitable alternative job. And, if this is not possible, the employee should be suspended on full pay for as long as is necessary to avoid the risks. Employees who have unreasonably refuse alternative work would lose the right to full pay during their suspension.

For information on other work health issues, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

Posted in Risk assessment | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

National UK Blog Awards – might we win?

Photo by Mikkel Rønne via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Mikkel Rønne via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The National UK Blog Awards are the only blog awards recognising a multitude of industry professional talent across the UK. They provide a unique opportunity for individual professionals, and organisations, to be recognised for their social media achievements through blogging, with the chance to network and be inspired by other industry bloggers.

We are really proud to announce that the Health for Work Adviceline blog has been shortlisted as a finalist in the category of organisational health blog. The winner will be announced on Friday 25 April so we will keep you posted.

Why not take a look now to find over 150 blogs on a whole range of work health topics?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Guest blog: Tell-tale signs of respiratory problems in the workplace

Photo by PhotoLabXL via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

Photo by PhotoLabXL via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence.

According to research by the Health and Safety Executive, it is estimated that a staggering 13,000 new cases of respiratory problems caused or aggravated by work, are diagnosed each year in Great Britain.  Around 12,000 deaths are also believed to be caused by occupational respiratory diseases, of which two thirds are “long latency illnesses” – such as those related to asbestos exposure.

From the smoking ban that came into force in 2007 to the 2012 update on asbestos control regulations, efforts are clearly being made to reduce exposure to such substances in both public spaces and at work, as well as to better manage associated risks.

However, much is yet to be achieved.  A series of studies run by the Labour Force Survey between 2009 and 2012 focused on those who reported breathing or lung problems caused or aggravated by work. The studies found that the general work environment was identified as the main contributing factor, making up 20% of cases. Other named factors included exposure to “dusts from stone, cement and concrete” (just under 20%), “airborne materials from spray painting or manufacturing foam products” (13%), “airborne materials while welding, soldering, or cutting/grinding metals” (10%) and “dusts from flour, grain/cereal, animal feed or straw” (7%).

So, what are the risks?

A wide range of respiratory diseases are caused or aggravated by environmental factors or exposure to harmful substances within the workplace:

  • Asthma – the most common occupational lung disease. Isocyanates, flour/grain, adhesives, metals, resins, colophony, fluxes, latex, animals, aldehydes and wood dust are reported as the most common irritants.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD), a range of respiratory illnesses including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. Although exposure specifically to tobacco smoke is the most common cause, vapours, dusts, gases and fumes can be contributing or aggravating factors too.
  • Non-cancerous respiratory diseases such as pleural thickening and pleural plaques (mostly caused by asbestos exposure), allergic alveolitis (allergic reaction to organic material such as grain dust, avian proteins, cheese mould or mushroom compost), allergic rhinitis (a range of allergens can be involved, from tree pollens to mould spores or dust mites), or byssinosis (caused by inhalation of cotton dust).
  • Respiratory cancers such as lung cancer or mesothelioma – a cancer that affects the covering of the lungs. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, but mostly caused by exposure to asbestos. Lung cancers can also be caused by contact with other substances such as silica, mineral oils or diesel exhaust fumes.
  • Pneumoconiosis – a group of lung diseases caused by the inhalation and retention in the lungs of dusts, most commonly from coal, asbestos or respirable crystalline silica. Between the initial exposure and the actual development of the disease, many years can pass. Consequently, new cases and deaths mostly stem from working conditions experienced in the distant past.

Keeping a watchful eye on symptoms

Early diagnosis is essential. Not only will this help mitigate the risks of deterioration but it will also be instrumental in protecting co-workers and new recruits. So what should workers and their managers look out for?

Any symptoms which improve when employees are away from work and then return (e.g. weekends / periods of annual leave), or symptoms which worsen when the subject is in the work environment (or for a few hours after finishing work) should be monitored. These include:

  • Symptoms normally associated with conjunctivitis: red, sticky, watery or itchy eyes.
  • Symptoms associated with rhinitis: sneezing, blocked, itchy, runny nose.
  • Shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, pain upon inhaling, wheezing.
  • Coughing fits.
  • Frequent chest infections.
  • Flu-like illness with fever, chest tightness, shortness of breath and dry cough (which may only last for a few hours after exposure).

As is set out in the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, employers have a legal duty to make employees aware of any respiratory hazards present in the workplace, and to protect them accordingly. As well as relevant health and safety training, information about dangerous substances and instructions on how to handle them, access to suitable protective equipment and appropriate health checks, steps should be taken to eliminate or control exposure, such as using a safer substance or the use of equipment such as exhaust ventilation.

Following the recent report that nanofibres used to strengthen objects such as tennis rackets and aeroplane wings might be as harmful to the lungs as asbestos is, health and safety expert organisation the British Safety Council also advocates close collaboration between researchers and relevant manufacturing industries in order to address risks early.

Be proactive, not reactive

Preventing or adequately controlling exposure to respiratory hazards should remain the focus, and honest, direct communication between workers, health and safety representatives and management has a pivotal role to play.

Employees should feel comfortable raising concerns about risks and requesting appropriate personal protective equipment.

Additionally, a genuine culture of welfare and well-being at work will encourage employees to think about the risks that are particularly relevant to their industry. Moreover they will be increasingly vigilant about the safety of their colleagues and their surroundings.

Sabelline Chicot is a writer and editor working in digital publishing. She covers a wide range of business matters, from human resources to online security and health & safety. You can follow her on Twitter at @sabellinechicot.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Risk assessment | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Have you got a good work life balance?

Photo by adesigna via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by adesigna via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The term ‘work life balance’ is one we’ve all heard before, but how many of us really ever give much thought to the way we balance out our work commitments with the rest of our lives? For many, the pressure to get through workloads can lead them to battle through work, however long it takes, rather than giving thought to whether the workload and timescales are realistic, and whether they are putting themselves under too much pressure. After all, our work needs to get done!

A precondition, of course, for developing a work/life balance is being in work in the first place. Whilst work may cause stress to some, it’s generally accepted that being unemployed for extended periods is detrimental to a person’s wellbeing, so throwing in the work towel if it all becomes too much probably isn’t the best way to go. It’s a question of working out what we derive in terms of pleasure, self-esteem or satisfaction from particular elements of our lives, and ensuring that there’s a workable balance between these various parts.

Many organisations are increasingly embracing the concept of flexible working in order to make it easier for workers to fit their work in around their home commitments. Working from home using smartphones or ‘cloud hosting’ is one way of helping employees to be productive even if they are unable to get to the office for whatever reason. Arguably, there is a debate to be had here concerning whether this ability to work at any time and in any place may indeed cause stress in itself, making it difficult for people to know when to switch off from work – but this is too big a topic to cover in within the scope of this blog.

So, how can employers help workers to manage their work/life balance, without being seen to be overstepping the mark? They could provide information about mental health and wellbeing, including work-related stress, and make sources of further information readily available to staff at all levels. They could also try to provide opportunities for physical activity linked to the workplace (e.g. lunchtime informal team sports) as a way of de-stressing and promoting a more convivial atmosphere in the workplace. And, possibly most importantly, employers should keep lines of communication open with employees so that employers can spot if somebody appears to be stressed, anxious or overworked in order to take steps to lighten their load and address their issues. For information on a whole host of issues relating to health at work, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

Posted in Employee Sickness, Mental Health, Tips & Ideas | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment