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the damage: Unions are the experts at spotting workplace ill health
year 25,000 people are forced out of their jobs by work-related ill-health,says
the UK government. It wouldn't have ended this way if they left it to
the expert - you. Union research is the best way to track down workplace
ill-health and find the solutions to Britain's sick workplaces.
Sometimes problems stem from poor research, sometime from the absence of research. More often than not it is because no-one either cares or values the opinion of the workers doing the risky jobs.
Good stuff can happen. A study in New York State found there were tens of thousands of preventable cases of occupational disease and thousands of deaths each year, and allocated US$1 million to kick off a now greatly expanded system of occupational health clinics, with a consortium of unions fully involved in their operation.(1)
But this positive response is not the norm. This year David Egilman, a professor at Brown University Medical School, noted that researchers studying the health of workers employed by disgraced chemical and asbestos giant WR Grace - it is the company featured in the 1999 environmental disaster movie "A Civil Action" - based their findings on fiddled results and company lies.
Egilman concluded: "Researchers conducting occupational health studies should be aware of the possibility of conflicts such as these... They should meet with workers and their representatives to obtain a more complete, accurate, and balanced assessment of past occupational exposures." (2)
Others have noted that workers are the first to notice the effects of work hazards on their health. (3)
HSE is now encouraging employers "to involve employees and their representatives in identifying problems and seeking solutions" (page 8).
What you can do
Do-It-Yourself research can vary from a quick show of hands in the canteen - if this tells you what you need to know, why waste your time doing more? - to a full worker-controlled scientific study.
Studies with full worker participation, sometimes with the assistance of "experts", sometimes without, have two major advantages: they work better; and they are more likely to lead to efforts to address the cause of any problems.(4,5,6)
Many researchers have found that "Participatory Action Research" (PAR) or "workers' epidemiology" - number crunching to link ill-health to its causes -is highly effective.
Occupational stress groups led by shop stewards "showed significant
improvements on virtually all measures of psychological well-being in
comparison to controls," a review reported. "Behavioural changes and
initiatives taken to improve the workplace were also reported in group
Other reports acknowledge that "when it comes to their health, workers always know best."(9)
Participatory research should obey simple rules:(10,11)
should have input into the research questions to be asked;
There are two main types of research, "active" and "passive". Active research involves going out and looking for a problem, through studies, surveys and other investigations.
Passive research involves reviewing existing information sources, like compensation records, accident reports or sick leave patterns. Some UK unions have evaluated problems like occupational cancer using union death benefit payout records, for example.
Follow your instincts, but follow up with some detective work. If you have a suspicion there is a problem, ask your union safety department - there's a good chance it will have heard similar concerns raised before.
You can also get support from a network of sympathetic occupational health projects and Hazards Centres around the country (see listing in Hazards 66 or on the Hazards website). Trade union education centres can also offer support. And check out the standard sources, Hazards factsheets or TUC's Hazards at work file.(12)
1. Robin Herbert and others. The diagnosis and treatment of occupational diseases: Integrating clinical practice with prevention. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol.37, pages 1-5, 2000. www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/environ/occupate.htm
2. David Egilman. Researchers should talk to workers. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol.37, page 668, 2000.
3. David Wegman. Investigations into the use of symptom reports for studying toxic epidemics. New epidemics in occupational health (Proceedings of the International Symposium on New Epidemics in Occupational Health), People and Work Research Reports no.1, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki, 1994.
4. Kathleen Rest and others. A call for worker-centred research in workers' compensation. New Solutions, vol.5.3, pages 71-79, 1995.
5. Susan Moir and others. Emerging participatory approaches to ergonomic interventions in the construction industry. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol.29, pages 425-430, 1996.
6. Olsen and others. Searching for the causes of work-related diseases. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.
7. Paul Landsbergis and others. Job stress and heart disease: Evidence and strategies for prevention. New Solutions. vol.3, no.3. pages 42-58, 1993. www.workhealth.org/prevention/prjscvd.html
8. Participatory ergonomic interventions in meatpacking plants, NIOSH Publication No.94-124, 1994.
9. When it comes to their health, workers always know best. Workers' Health International Newsletter, no.42, Winter 1994/95.
10. Rene Loewenson and others. Participatory approaches in occupational health research. National Institute of Occupational Health, Sweden. 1994.
11. Andrew Watterson. Whither lay epidemiology in the UK? Public health policy and practice. Journal of Public Health Practice, vol.16, no.3, 1994.
12. Hazards at work. Information file. Details from TUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS. Online at: www.tuc.org.uk
13. Rory O'Neill. Europe under strain: A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal disorders. TUTB. ISBN 2-930003-29-4. £14.00. From TUC. www.etuc.org/tutb/
14. The case of the workplace killers: A manual for cancer detectives on the job. Reprinted 1992. Details from: UAW, 8000 East Jefferson Ave, Detroit, MI 48214, USA. www.uaw.org/publications/h&s/
16. Toxic hotspots. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. www.svtc.org
17. Epi info and Epi map software can be downloaded free from the US Centers for Disease Control website: www.cdc.gov/epiinfo/
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