Risk factors remain high in metalworking industry

Findings from ‘The voice of 100,000 workers’ survey carried out by the Federation of White-collar and Blue-collar Metalworkers indicate high levels of perceived exposure to physical and psychosocial risks among Italian metalworkers. Exposure to noise, vibration and dangerous substances are the most common physical risk factors. Overall, 40% of those surveyed believe that their work has a negative impact on their health.

About the survey

During the second half of 2007, the Federation of White-collar and Blue-collar Metalworkers (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici, Fiom), which is affiliated to the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), carried out a survey entitled ‘The voice of 100,000 workers’ (4.34Mb PDF) (La voce di 100,000 lavoratrici e lavoratori). The study examined working conditions in 4,000 trade unionised companies by collecting 96,607 complete self-compiled questionnaires, representing over 6% of the country’s labour force in the metalworking industry.

The Fiom survey design did not follow any specific survey sampling methodology or weighting procedure. It was based on the questionnaire of the fourth European Working Conditions Survey, in addition to several other questions about unionisation and company-level bargaining.

Survey sample

Almost three out of four persons surveyed were blue-collar workers, whereas white-collar workers were underrepresented: 17% of the survey respondents are administrative workers, 8% are professionals and technicians, and 1% are managers. Employees belonging to a trade union are overrepresented in the survey (55.6%); this is due to the underrepresentation of those working in small companies with fewer than 50 employees. The latter comprise 12% of the survey sample, compared with a national proportion of 33%, according to the census of the National Institute for Statistics (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Istat).

Some 22% of the Fiom survey respondents are women, but this proportion increases to 40% among administrative workers. In terms of employment status, 9.4% of the respondents hold a temporary employment contract. More specifically, in terms of gender and age, this proportion stands at 13% among women, 17% among young workers and 21.2% among young women.

Psychosocial risk factors

Overall, 11.6% of the survey respondents report having been subject to bullying or harassment in the last 12 months (Table 1); this figure increases to 20% among migrants and 16.4% among younger workers aged less than 25 years. At the same time, 6.7% of those surveyed report gender discrimination (11.4% among women and 15% among younger workers), while 4.7% experienced age discrimination (10% of those aged less than 25 years and 14% of those aged over 55).

The incidence of ethnic or racial discrimination (1.9%) and nationality-based discrimination (1.8%) is marginal overall. However, more than one migrant worker out of four cites discrimination on the grounds of nationality (27.6%), and more than one migrant worker out of five (21.7%) reports ethnic or racial discrimination. In general, migrant workers report higher exposure to psychosocial risk factors than Italian nationals do.

The second Quality of Work in Italy Survey (II Indagine sulla qualità del lavoro in Italia), carried out by the Vocational Training Development Agency (Istituto per lo Sviluppo della Formazione Professionale dei Lavoratori, Isfol) in 2006 (IT0710019D), allows for certain comparisons with regard to exposure to psychological risk factors. According to the Isfol survey, the incidence of discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation is lower than that reported in the Fiom survey. Conversely, the Fiom survey reports lower exposure to discrimination based on nationality, ethnicity and disability than that found by Isfol.

Table 1: Psychosocial factors reported in last 12 months, by sex, age and country of origin (%)
Table Layout
  Sex Age Country of origin  Total
  Men Women Less than 35 36 to 45 More than 45 Italian Other (migrant)
Bullying or harassment 12.1 9.9 12.5 11.5 10.5 11.3 20.1 11.6
Unwanted sexual attention 2.0 4.7 3.6 2.2 1.7 2.5 5.3 2.6
Physical violence from colleagues 2.2 1.6 2.3 1.9 2.1 2.0 5.3 2.1
Physical violence from customers 0.8 0.6 0.8 0.7 0.7 0.7 2.1 0.7
Gender discrimination 5.4 11.4 7.0 6.8 6.1 6.5 12.8 6.7
Age discrimination 4.5 5.3 4.7 2.5 7.4 4.6 6.7 4.7
Discrimination on grounds of nationality 1.9 1.4 2.3 1.7 1.1 1.0 27.6 1.8
Ethnic or racial discrimination 2.1 1.1 2.4 1.7 1.2 1.3 21.7 1.9
Discrimination on grounds of disability 1.6 1.5 1.3 1.4 2.1 1.5 3.2 1.5
Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation 1.7 5.2 3.1 2.3 1.7 2.4 4.0 2.4

Source: Fiom, 2008

Risk factors and health at work

The most commonly reported environmental-related risk factors for at least three quarters of the working time are exposure to noise (56.4%), vibration (38.4%) and vapours, dust and chemical substances (28.5%), particularly in the steel and metal-producing industries. Meanwhile, repetitive hand or arm movements (57%) and painful positions (27%) for almost three quarters of the working time are the most frequently reported ergonomic risk factors. Among the latter, female workers record the highest incidence of repetitive movements (73%); in fact, this proportion increases to 93% among semi-skilled women working in the mass production of goods.

A total of 73.4% of the respondents consider that health and safety information about their workplace is at least adequate to their risk exposure; nevertheless, 47% of respondents report not having met health and safety worker representatives in the last two years.

Health effects

Some 19.8% of workers report being exposed to the risk of injuries and accidents at work, and another 12.1% fear that they could injure their colleagues because of their job. Overall, 40% of respondents believe that their work affects their health: this is the case among blue-collar workers (43%) more than administrative workers (30%) and technicians (27.8%). This belief is also more widespread among women than men (47% and 36.8%, respectively) and among older employees compared with younger ones (43.8% among those aged over 45 years and 29% among those aged less than 25, respectively).

Musculoskeletal disorders are the most prevalent work-related diseases, particularly among blue-collar workers, and women report a higher exposure in this regard (Table 2). Meanwhile, administrative workers more frequently report problems with vision (27.1%) and overall fatigue (27.8%). A total of 8% of the survey respondents reported taking one to two weeks of leave due to a work accident and 4.2% recorded longer periods of absence in this respect. In general, the incidence of reported work-related diseases increases significantly with working time.

Table 2: Work-related diseases, by sex and occupational status (%)
Table Layout
  Workers Administrative workers  
  Men Women Men Women Total
Back pain 38.4 47.5 20.5 26.8 35.3
Muscular pains in neck and shoulders 30.6 48.5 18.5 29.7 30.6
Muscular pains in upper limbs 26.9 46.7 8.7 14.4 26.1
Very tense or tired 25.7 36.3 19.5 25.7 25.2
Muscular pains in lower limbs 23.2 31.5 5.5 7.8 21.3
Overall fatigue 22.8 30.2 12.2 16.7 21.3
Hearing problems 25.0 17.6 5.4 4.6 20.2
Irritability 20.8 25.0 15.5 19.3 19.9
Problems with vision 19.8 20.8 24.6 31.0 19
Anxiety 17.3 25.7 13.4 18.9 17.9
Often feel tired and weak 13.9 19.6 6.9 10.0 13
Insomnia 13.8 16.0 9.0 10.9 13
Stomach ache 12.2 14.8 8.1 12.5 11.9
Skin problems 11.7 12.5 2.8 3.9 10.9
Difficulties in concentrating 11.4 11.8 9.5 10.6 10.1
Allergy 10.8 13.4 6.0 8.0 9.6
Breathing difficulties 9.3 6.7 2.6 3.1 7.4
Difficulties in thinking 8.0 7.8 5.8 6.8 7.2
Heart disease 3.0 2.0 1.8 1.1 2.5

Source: Fiom, 2008


Although the Fiom survey has no sample design, it is the first nationwide survey in the metalworking industry offering an in-depth investigation of both working conditions and their impact on health. It reveals several findings consistent with the 2006 quality of work survey carried out by Isfol, which was based on a computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) methodology. The latter method circumvents the need to use extensive questionnaires.

Mario Giaccone, Fondazione Seveso

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