Survey finds men more exposed to physical risks at work than women

In April 2012, the Danish National Institute of Public Health published its report Health and Morbidity in Denmark 2010 – & developments since 1987. The survey looked at aspects of the working environment – both psychosocial and physical. Respondents were asked how they felt about the demands of their workload, the influence they had over their jobs, about working conditions, about lifting and carrying, and about how much support they were given by their managers.

Background

The report Health and Morbidity in Denmark 2010 – & developments since 1987 (in Danish, 12.12Kb PDF), is the fifth study conducted by the Danish National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) among the adult Danish population since 1987.

It presents results from 25,000 respondents on health, well-being, morbidity, health behaviour, social relations, the living environment and the working environment.

In the first survey in 1987, data were collected through personal interviews. In 1994, 2000 and 2005 data were collected both through personal interviews and self-administered questionnaires. For the fifth and most recent survey in 2010, only self-administered questionnaires were used.

Using data from all five surveys, the NIPH has examined whether these shifts in methods of data collection have affected study results. It has found a number of difficulties in comparing some of the results from 2010 with those of previous years.

Psychosocial working environment

The report’s findings on the respondents’ psychosocial working environment come from questions that explore three dimensions; the demands placed on workers, the control they have over their tasks, and the social support they receive in the workplace.

The level of demands placed on workers was explored by asking how often the respondents found that they did not have enough time to complete the tasks expected of them. Of the economically active respondents aged between 16 and 24, 16% reported in 2010 that they always or often found it difficult to complete all of their work tasks. By gender, 15.2% of men and 17% of women reported difficulty completing expected tasks.

It was found that the 16–24 age group were most able to cope with their workload, with only 9.2% of men and 7.2% of women in this group saying they had difficulty completing their tasks. The higher the level of education, the more likely the respondents were to say they struggled with their workload.

The number of respondents who always or often found it difficult to complete all the required tasks increased from 17.8% in 1987 to 28% in 2005. It is not possible to compare these figures with those in the 2010 survey because of the changes in the data collection method.

Workers were also asked how much influence they felt they had over their work tasks and job situation. Of the economically active population aged between 16 and 64, 20.8% felt they had little influence over their tasks at work in 2010, compared to 15.9% in 2005. By gender, in 2010, this was 18.8% for men and 23.2% for women.

Respondents in the 16–24 age group felt they had least control over their work. In the 2010 survey of this group, 41.4% of men and 48.3% of women felt they had little or no influence. The figure was 33.9% among those respondents whose highest completed level of education is elementary school, and dropped to 14.3% for more highly educated respondents. No changes in these figures were seen between 1987 and 2005.

Social support is measured in terms of support from an immediate supervisor. The 2010 findings showed 48.1% of workers did not feel they were given sufficient support by their immediate supervisor. This figure does not vary significantly between different socioeconomic groups. The report does not show how the figures have changed since 1987.

Physical working environment

The survey sought data on physical working environments. Respondents were asked how often they were exposed to physical and thermal loads. For the purposes of the study, ‘often’ was defined as more than twice a week.

More than a third of respondents to the 2010 survey (37.5%) said they worked in a ‘bent or twisted position’ often, and 34.6% often had to make ‘repeated and unilateral movements’. Just over 30% of the respondents were often expected to carry or lift heavy objects.

Among employees at a ‘basic level’, 54.3 % said they often worked in bent or twisted positions, 46.6% often had to make repeated and unilateral movements and 47.6% often carried or lifted heavy objects. The share of respondents often exposed to bent and twisted working positions increased from 32.8% in 1987 to 35.5% in 2000. Between 2000 and 2005, the share decreased to 32.9%, and increased again to 37.5% in 2010.

The percentage of respondents who said they were exposed to many repeated and unilateral movements has increased from 27.7% in 1987 to 38.7% in 2005. The 2010 results are not comparable to these earlier figures due to changes in the data collection method.

The number of workers doing heavy lifting has been stable between 1987 and 2005. From 2005 to 2010 the percentage of workers reporting heavy lifting as part of their work decreased from 32.6% to 30%. Again, however, the 2010 survey data are not comparable to earlier results, due to changes in the data collection method.

In the 2010 survey, 31.2% of respondents – 33.6% of men and 28.5% of women – said they had been exposed to noise more than twice a week. The higher the level of education, the lower the number of people reporting they were exposed to noise. Overall, the percentage of respondents exposed to noise has risen from 31.3% in 1987 to 36.6% in 2000. In 2005 the share had decreased to 33.7%. The 2010 results cannot be compared to these data because of the changes in the method of data collection.

Comment

The findings presented in this report are interesting because the focus on the working environment in Denmark has increased since 1987.

Research on the relationship between the psychosocial working environment and stress has shown that having influence over work tasks and job situation has an impact on an employee’s risk of experiencing stress. Being able to influence the work they do gives employees the opportunity to adapt the work to their own needs. Low levels of influence over work tasks increases the risk of stress.

An increased number of respondents have reported that they have little influence over their job in the 2010 survey, up to 20.8% from 15.9% in 2005. Almost half of the 2010 respondents did not feel they were given sufficient support by their immediate supervisor.

It is significant that the share is largest for women in both areas.

Some of the most frequently occurring occupational diseases are attributable to physical working environment. Since 1987 the percentage of employees often being exposed to bent or twisted working positions has increased, but the share of employees being exposed to repeated and unilateral movements has decreased. The results also show that men are more exposed to risks in the physical working environment than women.

Those with the lowest levels of education are most exposed to risk factors in both the physical and psychosocial working environment.

Helle Ourø Nielsen and Simone Visbjerg Møller, Oxford Research

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