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How safe are you at work?

How safe are you at work?
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First Published: Tue, Apr 28 2009. 01 03 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Tue, Apr 28 2009. 01 03 AM IST
Guess what the world’s most dangerous job is? Not deep-sea diving nor firefighting. Timber-cutters and fishermen face the maximum hazards at work. This rating comes from labour departments across the world and is based on studies that looked at deaths in various occupations. On-job hazards in these physically taxing professions are certainly high. But even if you hold down a staid, desk-bound, white-collar job, there are several health and safety risks in your chosen profession.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The perils of the hot seat
ILO says that across the globe, a worker dies due to a work-related accident or disease every 15 seconds; every 15 seconds, 160 workers have a work-related accident. This means that by the end of each day, nearly one million workers have suffered a workplace accident. And staying glued to your seat won’t help.
According to B.C. Sathyanarayan, vascular surgeon, Max Balaji Hospital, New Delhi, any job that involves sitting or standing for long hours can potentially cause certain diseases which may be disabling or even life-threatening (see ‘Sedentary jobs: the bane of our lives’).
Painful price of a pay cheque
Poor lighting, badly maintained flooring (I once worked in an office where the vinyl flooring was torn and employees often tripped) compromise employee safety. Yet, as Ingrid Christensen, senior specialist, occupational safety and health, ILO, says, several studies have shown that providing safe and ergonomically designed workplaces not only reduces health hazards, but also increases employee productivity and enhances performance.
If you watch American sitcom Seinfeld, it may seem as though every step we take is a potential minefield. On the show, Susan dies of glue poisoning (after licking hundreds of envelopes), raising questions about postal workers’ safety and risks faced by children or schoolteachers who often work with glue. Another episode shows George suffering from sciatica brought on by a heavy, credit card-stuffed wallet kept in his back pocket.
Though these episodes are highly exaggerated, there is an uncomfortable germ of truth in them. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine as far back as 1966 showed that those who keep their wallets in their back pockets and sit on them are more prone to back problems and pain. This was backed by subsequent studies. While wallet neuropathy is common among lawyers and salesmen in the US, Bipin Walia, senior consultant, neurological surgery and head, spinal surgery, Max Superspeciality Hospital, New Delhi, says that in India this condition is common in long-distance lorry drivers who sit for hours on a stuffed wallet containing coins.
Below is a list of risks that run across the professional spectrum—and that you may not have been aware of :
• Dental assistants face risk of miscarriage because of exposure to ethylene oxide.
• The retail sector sees many varicose vein victims because of standing for long hours.
• Call-centre workers are prone to a range of health problems, from anxiety attacks and sleep apnea to hearing impairment.
• Teachers are prone to dysphonia: loss of voice, persistent coughs and sore throats caused by non-stop talking.
• Healthcare workers (and they number over four million in India) are exposed to all kinds of risks, including radiation, which takes a heavy toll on them. Jasjit Katariya, chief patient safety officer, Artemis Health Institute, New Delhi, says: “Doctors, nurses, technicians and all of the support staff in a hospital are continually exposed to the hazards of working in an environment where they are exposed to all kinds of contaminated bodily fluids and run the risk of acquiring deadly infections like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.”
New jobs, new-age problems
Almost every profession comes with inherent risks. But the top occupational problems now are stress and musculoskeletal disorders, affecting every level of employee, from blue- to white-collar. Shyam Pingle, president, Indian Association of Occupational Health (IAOH), says that as more women enter the workplace—the mere fact places a double burden on them in any case—more gender-related and security issues are likely to crop up.
Both ILO and IAOH fear that the current global financial crisis is also likely to lead to an increased incidence of psychosocial issues. They are in dialogue with employers and workers and governments on how best to handle this. Pink slips, increased workloads, fear of unemployment and massive reorganization are all stress triggers. The recent case of 23-year-old trainee Abhijeet Mukherjee hanging himself in Mysore—allegedly because he thought he wouldn’t meet his employer’s high work standards—serves to highlight how much of a risk the slowdown and the fear of job loss poses.
Lobby for health at work
So, watch out for the risks peculiar to your profession and take timely steps. The good news is that many sectors are beginning to take cognizance of the risks and customizing annual health checks accordingly. For instance, diagnostic chains and hospitals have reported that they are being asked to devise differentiated offerings for call centres, IT workers, the automotive industry and so on, based on the particular risks faced by these sectors.
In February, there was also a policy endorsement of the issue by the government when the Union cabinet approved the national policy on safety, health and environment at workplace. Pingle urges the industry to focus on occupational health centres at the workplace and also makes a case for integrating occupational health as a discipline with general health services—currently, occupational health services come under the ministry of labour, while general health services are under the ministry of health, with hardly any dialogue between the two).
ILO’s Christensen observes that while it is the responsibility of managements, supervisors and HR departments to ensure occupational safety and health, employees must cooperate in making the workplace safe and healthy at every level. As she puts it, “Intervention is needed both top-down as well as bottom-up.” Small adjustments—both from you and the management (and you need to voice your rights to a safe and healthy workplace)—can get you a “life” at the workplace.
CONNECT
Measure
Which is India’s healthiest workplace? In March, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) gave its corporate wellness awards, based on a survey by CII, Apollo Hospitals and Apollo DKV. Birla Cement and SIRO Clinpharm came out on top in the healthy workforce category in the manufacturing and services sectors, respectively. The ‘best health promotion’ award went to Saint-Gobain Glass and HCL Technologies. The overall best corporate wellness programmes were run by L&T and HCL Technologies. Other winners included ITC Badrachalam, RMSI, Tata Steel, Chennai and HDFC Bank.
Around 581 firms, with about 250,000 employees in 32 cities, participated. Winners were identified on the basis of a statistical assessment of the health of participating employees (around 200,000 individuals were surveyed).
Staff Writer
Know
A recent survey by Mumbai-based NGO, HealthOn Foundation, has found that pressure at the workplace has been manifesting itself in frequent illness and high stress levels among executives. The survey was carried out among male and female executives in the age group of 30-45 in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Of them, 57% were men. The report indicates that a large number of executives have availed of medical leave, and many even availed more than their entitlement. The respondents attribute recurring health problems such as digestive system disorders (acidity, heartburn, frequent stomach upsets), fatigue and lethargy, neck pain, backaches, anxiety and depression to stress at the workplace. All major sectors, including hospitality, information technology and BPOs, were covered in the survey.
Staff Writer
Eat
Eating cereals for breakfast will never be the same again. Now, researchers say cereals will add some crackle to your concentration power. A study by King’s College, London, has shown that a bowl of cereal for breakfast could cut the inevitable decline in performance through the day by around half, and in certain cases, can prevent attention deficit completely. “Breakfast cereal consumption has a significant role in improving morning cognitive performance,” says lead researcher Katrina Campbell.
PTI
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First Published: Tue, Apr 28 2009. 01 03 AM IST