Special Report on Health at Work

When occupational health doctors warn about “watching your back” they are not alluding to metaphorical jealous knives, but precisely what they say. More injuries are sustained in the back than all the other parts of the body. An analysis of injuries caused by “over-exertion” has shown that while 19 percent were inflicted on the upper limb; 9 percent on the trunk; 8 percent on the lower limb; and 3 percent on other parts; more than 60 percent were sustained by the back.

The main causes of back injuries were lifting, carrying, wielding or throwing (74 percent) and 15 percent due to pushing and pulling.

In manufacturing the worst affected are workers in coke ovens and manufactured fuel, bricks, fireclay and refactory goods and brewing and malting, all which have shown that back injuries represented more than 20 percent of all injuries.

Back trouble is a common complaint to a lesser or greater extent throughout occupational health and there are extensive programs of education in handling techniques.

But what about eyes, especially with the dramatic rise in the use of visual display units?

As one leading occupational health doctor said: “For the VDU operator, it can be a pain in the neck, for us in occupational health it can be a pain in the backside.”

Operating VDUs has been the cause of alarmist speculation about radiation emissions, cataracts, and photosensitive epilepsy. But it is speculation that has not stood up to medical evidence.

A company medical officer recalled that one of his clerical staff complained that working with a VDU made it impossible for her to wear her contact lenses – they kept dropping out. On examination the cause was found to be that the office needed a humidifier.

Most large companies now offer regular eyesight tests. At Esso, for example, a comprehensive eye test is offered to all potential users who expect to spend, on average, more than 25 percent of their time on visual display units.

But the operation of VDUs is a minor potential occupational hazard in the oil industry – not on the same scale, at least, as safeguarding the welfare of workers in refineries who could meet toxic hazards, or overseeing the occupational health of a man on an oil rig.

The petroleum industry has long been active in assessing the health hazards that may arise in the processing of oil. Much of the earliest attention has been concerned with the potential carcinogenicity of certain oil fractions and the formulation of refining treatments and hygiene safeguards.

In 1980 an epidemiological survey was carried out in eight oil refineries. The results showed that mortality for all causes of death was markedly lower than that of the comparison population and that there was a similar lowered mortality for all cancers.

When an offshore worker climbs into a helicopter to fly him out to an oil platform or vessel, he is not only exposing himself to demanding conditions in an often hostile environment – he is flying out of the care of the National Health Service.

For the responsibility of the NHS does not extend beyond the low water mark around the shores of Britain. The primary and occupational health becomes the responsibility of the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association.

The so-called Offshore Medical Support of the association gives each man a medical check before he joins a company, with a follow-up medical every three years for those under 40 years of age, every two years between 40 and 50 years, and annually for men over 50.

But as Dr Alex Grieve, chief medical officer of Shell (UK) Expro, said: “The money offered often militates to some extent against an employee making an honest declaration that he suffers from some ailment which he feels might render him ineligible to work offshore.” The most difficult ailment to detect is the peptic ulcer.

The physical hazards of working and living in what is essentially a densely populated environment, there are specific hazards that have to be constantly guarded against – agents used in drilling muds and for pipeline inhibitors maybe toxic; the atmosphere could contain hydrogen sulphide or other toxic gases.

Divers, of course, have their additional environmental hazards. Their fitness standards are strict and the 1981 Health and Safety Executive guidelines notes are being updated.