Change with the times: Chronic conditions hint at the need for tailored injury prevention efforts

Workplaces may need to tailor their injury prevention efforts to address the rising prevalence of chronic conditions, says new research from the Institute for Work & Health.

The higher prevalence of chronic conditions among older workers may have important implications for the prevention of workplace injuries, suggests new research from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The research, just published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (vol. 54, no. 7, pp. 841-846), examined the relationship between five chronic conditions—arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and back problems—and work-related injuries, including repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). It showed that rates of work-related injuries were higher in those with chronic conditions than in those without.

The study hints at the need for more tailored injury prevention efforts, according to IWH Scientist Dr. Peter Smith, who led the research team. We know that the percentage of workers in the labour market with chronic conditions is going to increase due to an aging workforce, and prevention programs may need to more adequately take these changes into account, he says. If companies want to remain competitive and retain their most experienced people, they’ll need to think about injury prevention for those workers with chronic disease.

Increasing prevalence of chronic conditions

There’s no doubt that chronic conditions are on the rise. According to the Health Council of Canada, one third of Canadians have one or more long-term chronic diseases, and the prevalence of some of these conditions has increased in the past 20 years. The prevalence rates of arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and back problems have all increased between 1994 and 2007 in the working population, with some (hypertension and diabetes) more than doubling in frequency.

To date, relatively little research has examined the association between chronic disease and the risk of work injury in older workers. One objective of this research was to address this gap in knowledge. Workers who have chronic conditions are often the same workers with the greater levels of experience and institutional knowledge, says Smith. So from a workplace perspective, as well as a societal perspective, it’s vital to keep these people injury-free and in the labour market.

Study focused on five conditions

The study examined the relationship between five medically diagnosed chronic conditions and the risk of work injury using two population-based samples from Statistics Canada: the 2003 and 2005 Canadian Community Health Surveys (CCHS). For this study, the samples were restricted to respondents ages 15 or older who had been employed in the last year.

CCHS respondents were asked if they had experienced a work-related injury other than an RSI in the past 12 months that required medical attention and that limited their normal activities. They were also asked if they had experienced an RSI that they attributed to work. In this study, the researchers examined the association between work-related traumatic injuries and RSIs and the prevalence of arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and back problems—chronic conditions associated with aging.

Pattern of elevated risk

The study found that 2.5 per cent of respondents reported traumatic work-related injuries and a further 7.2 per cent of respondents reported RSIs. Rates of work-related injuries were higher in those with chronic conditions compared to respondents without chronic conditions, with the highest rates among those reporting chronic back problems (4.0 per cent) followed by respondents with arthritis (3.6 per cent) and diabetes (3.5 per cent).

Similar patterns were observed among those with RSIs. The highest rates were seen in respondents with arthritis and back problems (over 14 per cent) followed by those with heart disease (over 10 per cent).

There is a need for more research to identify how health and safety programs may need to change to prevent injuries among workers with chronic conditions. As an example, Smith notes that the study showed the percentage of injuries due to falls was higher for people with arthritis and back pain compared to those without these conditions. That may have implications for workplace slip, trip and fall prevention programs.

Source: At Work, Issue 69, Summer 2012: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto