Working environments and Health

The type of work you do almost certainly affects your health. The most obvious factors influencing a person’s health include the amount of physical activity required, the particular environment in which the work is carried out, and the amount of stress involved. It is, however, extremely difficult to predict the physical or mental effects of most occupations, because the links between certain kinds of work and specific ailments are sometimes ill-defined. On a scientific level, the study of ergonomics seeks to make the relationship between an individual and his or her working environment as satisfactory as possible, and has helped to pinpoint areas where workers might be adversely affected. Appropriate modifications can result in people being happier and healthier in their work, and employers benefit from greater efficiency and less absenteeism.


Ergonomics is also aptly known as human engineering. In many areas of industry, such as in mining, building, machine and assembly shops, road transport and breweries, only slight alterations in working conditions can make large improvements in efficiency and economy. For example, following an economist’s study of individuals in their workplace, a small change in the arrangement of that workplace can make surprising differences to the amount of effort needed to carry out a particular task. Meas-urements of people’s ability to process information, handle more than one task at once, attention levels and fatigue can also bring about improvements in working conditions by helping to reduce accidents. Recently, the damaging effect of a bad posture has come to light. The continual overstraining or twisting of the spinal column can lead to backache, which is the largest single cause of working days lost through illness in Britain. Studies of sitting comfort and seat design have resulted in better products. Improvements in seating for lorry and tractor drivers, who spend long periods sitting, have provided a higher degree of safety and comfort. Seats in offices and industrial establishments have long been uncomfortable and unhealthy but the situation is at last changing for the better.

Using the same or a limited range of postures may be harmful. Adopted occasionally, a posture may not cause problems but if repeated day after day it can lead to bodily distortion and damage to muscles. This may cause pain or stiffness in muscles and joints. Sitting without support for the base of the spine, or a good footrest at the correct height; lifting heavy weights with your back bent forward; or any other cramped position can cause these problems. Continual excposure to high levels of noise can cause hearing problems, and may eventually result in deafness (and mental stress). These situations are identifiable and preventable by the masking of the noise or the wearing of ear protectors.

Physical protection is very important. Spectacles, goggles or faceshields protect the eyes from, for example, metal particles ejected during machining of metal on a lathe, molten metal, or chemical splash, dusts and gases. Head protection such as the wearing of a hard hat is imperative at sites where equipment is not always fixed down, as in building and manufacturing.

Occupational diseases

There are a number of so-called occupational dis-eases. Whole-body vibration, such as that ex-perienced on ships, road and air transport, can lead to motion sickness, blurred vision and impaired perception of sound. The prolonged handling of vibrating macinery such as pneumatic hammers, chisels, rotary discs, grindstones and chainsaws as used by forestry workers can result in loss of touch sensitivity and lead to a condition known as Raynaud’s phenomenon. The repeated vibration damages the blood vessels supplying the hand, causing them to constrict thus reducing the flow of blood to the affected area, which may, if left untreated, lead to permanent disability.

Occupational lung disorders can be caused by gases, dust and fumes. Ammonia, chlorine, nitrogen oxides, ozone, phosgene, sulphur dioxide, mercury vapour, osmium, vanadium pentoxide and zinc chloride are substances which may cause serious problems. These include pain in the eyes, mouth, throat and chest; coughing, bronchitis and conjunctivitis. People who work in industrial processes involving fertilizers, explosives, refrigeration, oil-refining, plastics, bleach and disinfectant manufacturing and welding, may suffer from exposure to the chemicals used in these processes.

Occupational asthma can be caused by exposure to substances such as paints and foams, biological washing powder, wood dust and sawdust, and rat and mice urine . Wheezing, difficulty in breathing and a sense of constriction in the chest are the main symptoms. The symptoms may occur immediately on exposure, but quite frequently develop several hours later or during the night; this often means that no association is made between the asthma and the agents in the workplace that have caused the condition.

There are several dust-induced diseases of the lung, collectively known as the pneumoconioses. Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of fine silica particles; it occurs in mining and in iron and steel foundries, and results in severe lung damage. Asbestosis, resulting from the inhalation of asbestos fibres, also causes lung damage and lung cancer. A special type of pneumoconiosis (anthracosis) affects miners who inhale coal dust. Prevention of these diseases is by adequate ventilation of workplaces, damping down of dust, and the wearing of masks. Even people who work on the land can be susceptible to lung disease, for example farmers lung is an allergic reaction that is caused by frequent exposure to a fungus which grows in mouldy hay or grain.

People who work with radioactive materials should be protected behind a screen of lead, brick or concrete, depending on the source and intensity of the radiation. People who administer X-rays in hospitals wear protective aprons and gloves which shield them from the potentially harmful effects of radiation. Possible effects include damage to the kidneys, bones, nerves, brain and muscle; infertility; and, rarely, birth of abnormal children. High levels of radiation can in-duce anorexia (severe loss of appetite), nausea, vo-miting and even sudden death. Much controversy exists over the long-term effects of exposure to radiation and whether it is responsible for cancers occuring up to 30 years later.

If you are concerned about possible health hazards at work, there are several possible lines of action: enquire at your trades union branch or employers agency; consult a local representative of the government or department; contact your MP, ombudsman or a media outlet.

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