Sunday, September 05, 2004

All Stressed Out and Nowhere to Go:NY Times Discovers Workplace Stress

Rory O'Neill, editor of Britain's Hazards Magazine, recently criticized his American friends for our "unhealthy obsession"
with congratulating and lauding journalists for finally getting round to covering the devastating impact of work on health - and, more particularly, the impact of business led administrations on our work and our health.

This is borne of the relief of occasionally having these concerns taken seriously by the media (or anyone, for that matter).
Unhealthy because their occasional attention to workplace health issues soon wanders and bares little relation to the seriousness of the issue.

Nevertheless, we here at Confined Space persist in many unhealthy obsessions. For example, we freely admit that we like it when the press suddenly discovers a workplace safety and health issue that has been plaguing (and often killing) workers for years or decades, even though it may be true that they're off to greener pastures faster than a kid who forgets to take his ritalin. But, in these hard times, attention to these issues by the NY Times or Washington Post seems to signal a certain legitimacy -- and more important -- occasionally seems to spur a bit of action by those on the throne who would far sooner ignore the AFL-CIO or the scientific community than the New York Times. Certainly not the way life should be, but these are dark times and one must sometimes thank the heavens for small favors.

So Where's OSHA?

Today's small favor (or unhealthy obsession) comes in the form of the first of a three part NY Times series on workplace stress. It seems that stress is costing American businesses lots of money while making workers sick or dead. While this is certainly not new news to workplace safety activists (nor to stressed-out workers), one "new" question to keep in mind while reading this post and the Times article is "Where is OSHA?" OSHA was established to ensure safe workplaces, yet the agency has been very reluctant to break any new ground in "non-traditional" areas.

For example, in the mid-1980's, OSHA had to be dragged kicking and screaming by unions and Congress into realizing that it could address the workplace hazards of infectious diseases. In the 1990's, OSHA finally took some baby steps toward addressing workplace violence -- again at the insistance of labor unions who pointed out that assaults were the second leading cause of workplace death and that most assaults could be prevented if employers made a few changes in the measures they could be prevented.

Workplace stress deals with the touchy issues of workplace organization -- how work is organized, how long and hard people work, how secure they are in holding on to their jobs or getting new jobs, the control they have over their work -- all issues that OSHA is loathe to get involved in. But, as the evidence -- and the cost -- of workplace stress pile up, OSHA may find it harder and harder to resist addressing these issues -- especially with a receptive administration and an active labor movement.

Just the Facts

Among the facts described by the Times are:
  • Workplace stress costs tne nation more than $300 billion each year in heatlh care, missed work and the stress reduction industry that has gown up to soothe workers and keep production high.

  • A major cause is the growth of the non-traditional job: one in every four workers in the United States is "in some nontraditional employment relationship," including part-time work and self-employment. Four out of 10 Americans now work "mostly at nonstandard time," according to figures cited by Harriet Presser of the University of Maryland. The odd hours include evenings, nights, rotating shifts and weekends to meet the demands of global supply chains and customers in every time zone.

  • Americans work too much: Workers in the United States already put in more than 1,800 hours on the job a year: 350 hours more than the Germans and slightly more than the Japanese, according to the International Labor Office.

  • Downsizing (or rapid expansion) and outsourcing cause stress, translating into increases in sick days, hospitalization, the risk of heart attack and a host of other stress-related problems. A recent Finish study "found the risk of dying from a heart attack doubled among permanent employees after a major round of downsizing, with the risk growing to five times normal after four years."

    Workers in organizations "in transition" also had "higher-than-average levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure and other biochemical markers of heart disease risk, the researchers found."

  • Control is an important issue. "Workers who felt that they had a measure of control over their environment were far less likely to find work stressful than those who felt utterly at the mercy of a capricious boss, a child's illness or a lurching economy."

  • Stress damages the immune system, linking high stress levels with conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, delayed healing and cancer.
OK, so now that the NY Times has recognized workplace stress as a real, legitimate problem, the question is what do we do about it...

Hint: Don't just read, organize. And a good place to start is Hazards Magazine's "Worked to Death" page, edited by the same Rory O'Neill who trashed us at the beginning of this post. As we've seen from the history of the bloodborne pathogens standard and OSHA's workplace violence guidelines, the agency can be forced to move, but pressure by unions -- in addition to NY Times articles -- is necessary.