New report on risk factors for work illnesses

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), such as back problems, account for 50% of all work-related illnesses in Ireland, while stress, anxiety and depression (SAD) account for 18%, new research has found.

According to a new report by the Economic and Social Research Institute, in 2013, an estimated 55,000 workers in Ireland suffered from some sort of work-related illness, leading to a loss of 790,000 days of work.

Rates of illness, particularly MSD, increased during the economic boom, but decreased during the recession.

The researchers looked at the risk factors associated with work-related illnesses and found that when it came to MSD, there was no difference in risk between men and women.

Workers aged between 35 and 64 had the highest risk and they were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems compared to workers aged 25 or under.

The risk of MSD was greatest among workers in the construction industry, agriculture and the health services. The risk was lowest among those in the education sector and ‘other services', such as finance and communications.

The research found that people who work shifts and nights had a bigger risk of developing musculoskeletal problems, however the number of hours worked appeared to have little impact.

Meanwhile, new recruits were found to have a higher risk of developing MSD each month compared to more experienced workers.

When it came to work-related SAD, women and workers aged 35-54 were found to have a higher risk of developing these illnesses.

The risk was found to be highest among those working in education, followed by those in health, public administration and transport. The risk was lowest among those in the agriculture, construction and industry sectors.

Self-employed people had a lower risk of developing SAD than employees and the risk was higher among those who worked long hours. In fact, those who worked more than 50 hours per week were three times more likely to experience SAD than those working less than 30 hours.

Shift workers were also found to have a greater risk of SAD, as did new recruits.

The researchers believe their findings have many implications for policy. As older workers are most at risk of MSD and the workforce is ageing, it is essential that measures are introduced to minimise risks for people and help those already affected.

The high number of SAD cases also suggests that more emphasis on mental health is needed, particularly as employers often find it difficult to assess and manage mental health risks in the workplace.

The researchers suggested that addressing the ‘long hours culture' in many workplaces could reduce the risk of work-related SAD. Furthermore, specific measures are needed to assist new recruits, such as better training and supervision.

"The research findings point to a need for targeted measures to address work-related illnesses, not only to assist workers experiencing difficulties, but also to tackle the issues of lost productivity, and the associated costs for healthcare and social protection.

"As the rate of work-related illness increased during the boom years, it is especially important to consider implementing such measures as the economic recovery accelerates," commented the report's author, Helen Russell, of the ESRI.

This research was carried out as part of a research programme with the Health and Safety Authority.


[Posted: Thu 20/10/2016]

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