New research explores link between common health problems and workplace injury

19 June 2017

Most of us have taken medicines which have included a warning about ‘not driving or operating machinery’.

IOSH has co-funded researchers at the University of Southampton to analyse the risk of workplace injury arising from common health conditions treated by taking prescribed medication

This is because some medicines can cause side effects, such as drowsiness or poor concentration, which may put us at increased risk of an accident.

Likewise physical and mental illness in itself can make us feel tired, have an impact on our concentration, or cause other side effects.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) recognised the importance of these issues and co-funded researchers at the University of Southampton so they could analyse the risk of workplace injury arising from common health conditions treated by taking prescribed medication.

Kate Field, Head of Information and Intelligence at IOSH, said:

“As people work longer and the prevalence of chronic ill-health rises in the workforce, so the need for proportionate risk-based evidence grows and assumes a greater importance.

“Being in work is good for people and business, even if we are a little under the weather or are perhaps managing a serious or chronic condition.

“It is important, however, that employers take steps to ensure risks to individuals and others are effectively managed. Good rehabilitation processes and a return-to-work plan with a focus on the individual can manage the process very effectively but we have lacked direct evidence of the risk of workplace accidents from physical and mental ill-health and associated medicines.

“We need evidence so that employers can make informed decisions and not apply undue restrictions on employees managing their health. This research by the University of Southampton provides new, robust, evidenced-based data on the risks.”

The research, funded by both IOSH and the Medical Research Council (MRC), analysed a sample of 8,000 anonymised medical records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD).

It found there was a moderate elevation of risk with some forms of physical and mental ill-health and their associated medications, but no case exists for blanket exclusion of such individuals on health grounds.

In fact, the research reinforced earlier IOSH-funded research findings into returning to work after cancer which recommended individualised risk assessment as the sensible and proportionate way to manage such risks.

The new research built on this, recommending that greater weight to individualised risk assessment is made for those whose health problems are currently active, for those engaged in safety critical occupations and for roles that bear substantial responsibility for the safety of others.

The records revealed that being prescribed psychotropic medication for a mental health disorder generally increased the risk of occupational injury by between 40 and 60 per cent.

Eye problems and ear problems, meanwhile, were associated with an increased risk of occupational injury of about 30–60 per cent of cases sampled.

The researchers concluded that current UK employment practices concerning diabetes and epilepsy do not put workers with these conditions at undue risk of injury.

Professor Keith Palmer, Professor of Occupational Medicine at the University of Southampton, who led the research, said:

“The populations of Western countries are ageing. The frequency of common age-related health conditions is therefore rising among the workforce, as is the proportion taking prescribed medicines.

“Potentially such factors could increase the risk of accidental injury at work. The onus is on employers to manage any associated risks to health and safety equitably and appropriately.

“Managers face the dilemma, on the one hand, of ensuring the physical safety of workers and third parties, and of avoiding needless restrictions on work opportunity among older workers.”

The full and summary reports, entitled The role of health problems and drug treatments in accidental injury at work, can be downloaded at www.iosh.co.uk/medication

IOSH has previously commissioned other research into the health and safety requirements of post-retirement age workers and older workers. The Institution also offers a free Occupational Health Toolkit to help tackle health issues in the workplace.

Caption: The new research is the latest that IOSH has funded into occupational health issues

Notes for editors

IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With over 46,000 members in 120 countries, we’re the world’s largest professional health and safety organisation.

We set standards, and support, develop and connect our members with resources, guidance, events and training. We’re the voice of the profession, and campaign on issues that affect millions of working people.

IOSH was founded in 1945 and is a registered charity with international NGO status.

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