High incidence of work-related health problems in Oslo

Work-related health problems are very common among people living in Norway’s capital city of Oslo, a recent study published in the scientific journal ‘Occupational Medicine’ has revealed. Almost 60% of Oslo citizens aged 30–45 years reported one or more work-related health problems in the previous month. The results suggest the significant potential for illness prevention through the reduction of known risk factors in the workplace.

A survey on Self-reported work-related health problems from the Oslo Health Study was published in September 2006 in the scientific journal Occupational Medicine by researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Health in Norway (Statens arbeidsmiljøinstitutt, Stami). The study aimed to examine the occurrence of work-related health problems and their impact on the total burden of ill-health among Oslo citizens aged 30, 40 and 45 years.

There is a well-established link between certain working conditions and specific health problems. Less is known about the occurrence of work-related health problems among the general population and, in turn, about the potential for the prevention of such problems in the workplace.

Survey findings

The survey is based on the findings of the Oslo Health Study, carried out in 2000–2001. All citizens aged 30, 40 and 45 years were invited to participate in a comprehensive health screening, which included questionnaires on potential risk and background factors. Participants were asked if they had experienced one or more of 11 common health problems in the previous month, and whether they considered these to be work related. Of the 26,074 persons invited, 8,594 – corresponding to 33% of the total sample – answered the questionnaire.

Work-related health problems very common

Almost 60% of the respondents reported experiencing one or more work-related health problems in the previous month. The most frequently reported symptom was pain in the neck or shoulders, at 38%, followed by lower back pain, at 23%, arm pain such as pain in the elbow, forearm or hand, at 20%, and fatigue, at 20%.

A high proportion of reported health problems were considered to be work related. Some 74% of those citing neck or shoulder pain attributed this problem to their working conditions (see Figure 1). Meanwhile, 72% of those reporting arm pain believed that this was work related, 51% of those complaining of fatigue blamed their work and 50% of respondents citing lower back pain considered that their work had caused this condition. Eczema and asthmatic symptoms, such as chest tightness and wheezing, were attributed to work by 23% and 18% respectively of all respondents reporting these illnesses.

These results imply a large risk preventive potential and the need for increased preventive efforts targeting known risk factors in the workplace.

Figure 1: Health problems experienced in past month, link with work (%)

Figure 1: Health problems experienced in past month, link with work (%)

Note: Health problems reported by Oslo citizens aged 30, 40 and 45 years (number = 8,594 respondents).

Source: Occupational Medicine, September 2006

Gender and age differences

Pain in the neck or shoulders, arms and lower back were more frequently reported by women than men and were more often attributed to work-related reasons (see Figure 2). This finding is also shown in other studies (see, for example, Gender differences in upper extremity musculoskeletal complaints in the working population (available for purchase)), and has been explained by risk factors both at work and at home.

However, work-related impaired hearing and respiratory symptoms were more frequently cited by men than women (4% compared with 2%). Eczema was slightly more frequent among women than men (6% compared with 5%), a finding which is compatible with their work exposures.

Figure 2: Health problems experienced in past month, by sex and link with work (%)

Figure 2: Health problems experienced in past month, by sex and link with work (%)

Note: Health problems reported by Oslo citizens aged 30, 40 and 45 years (number = 8,594 respondents).

Source: Occupational Medicine, September 2006

Health problems were usually more frequent in the oldest age group; however, age differences were generally small in relation to work-related health problems. One exception concerns work-related respiratory symptoms and impaired hearing, which tend to persist after exposure ceases and which showed higher frequencies in the oldest age group. Work-related arm pain was also more frequent in the oldest age group, which may suggest continued exposure to the problem or persistent pain even after exposure has been reduced.

Steiner Aasnæss, National Institute of Occupational Health (Stami)

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