Workplaces can be dangerous. Despite employers having a duty of care to workers, accidents can and do happen. And people get hurt.
But some of the most serious causes of work-related health problems aren’t even accidents – they are illnesses caused by exposure to harmful substances, carrying out repetitive actions or even loud noise.
These sorts of work-related diseases are life-changing. They can mean shortened life expectancy or chronic pain. They can mean an inability to continue working and financial problems. They can mean emotional ill health, as well as physical.
What sorts of illnesses are most frequently experienced – and will this continue as we adjust to our new working lives in the age of Covid-19?
Stress is the biggest reason for work absences. This is often the result of pressure building up in the work environment, eventually coming to a head when an employee can no longer deal with it and has to take time away.
This can be caused by one person having too much work, having to work for too long, uncertainty and change in the workplace – including worries about job security – and even bullying by colleagues and, particularly, managers.
When it is at its worst, workplace stress can lead to depression, anxiety, a loss of confidence or self-esteem and a feeling of humiliation.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 1.4 million workers suffered from work-related ill health in 2018/19, with 37% of those experiencing musculoskeletal disorders. 41% of these affected the upper limbs or neck, while 40% affected the back.
These kinds of illnesses are often the result of certain kinds of physical work, from manual lifting to constant kneeling.
The HSE said these conditions can arise from work that features repetitive movement, fast-paced work that doesn’t allow for recovery periods between movements, fixed or constrained positions and large amounts of force focused on small parts of the body, such as hands.
Between 2016 and 2019, the industries with the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders were construction, agriculture and human health and social work.
We are currently seeing a huge amount of people suffering because of work they carried out many decades ago. This is particularly true for sufferers of mesothelioma and other lung-related illnesses – often caused by exposure to asbestos.
The HSE has found that 12,000 lung disease deaths every year are thought to be related to past exposures to harmful substances at work.
Meanwhile, a further 18,000 estimated cases of lung disease or breathing problems caused or exacerbated by work are reported annually.
Although the recent – and, in some cases, ongoing – coronavirus lockdown saw a decrease in the number of accidents in the workplace, many industrial illnesses are continuing to be diagnosed as they were developed many years ago. This is particularly true for sufferers of diseases like mesothelioma, which can take decades for symptoms to show.
In addition, we may see an increase in stress caused by work as staff numbers shrink and more work falls on the shoulders of the remaining employees. Workers are also likely to experience significant levels of uncertainty around job security in the current economic climate.
The exact impact of the pandemic on work-related illness remains to be seen. But, as with almost everything else this year, it will undoubtedly have one.
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