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Stress and Strain
In Two Countries

UE News, May 1996

STRESS ON THE JOB is the top priority among health and safety problems faced by British labor union members in 1996, according to a recent 37 union survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of the United Kingdom.

Trailing close behind are concerns about repetitive strain injuries, working hours and noise on the job. Of course, as TUC health and safety leaders were quick to point out, long and irregular working hours and high levels of noise on the job contribute directly to high stress levels.

Twenty-one of the 37 unions surveyed mentioned stress as a number one health and safety priority. They specifically mentioned bullying by supervisors and sexual harassment of women workers as hazards associated with stress. When under great pressure to keep up and raise production, everybody’s patience wears thin — and from production-line supervisors, this means yelling and shouting, and otherwise bullying workers and raising stress levels.

Nineteen of the 37 British unions listed ergonomic problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries as major health and safety problems for their members. Nowhere else in this survey is the contrast between the health and problems of British and U.S. workers greater.


The British are raising this as one of their priority issues in 1996. In the United States, ergonomics problems are epidemic in factories and offices, but OSHA is banned from developing a standard for this problem or even conducting research on it by an Act of Congress, the mean, nasty and brutish 104th session of the U.S. Congress.

[Editor's Note: See August, 1996 H&S: 'Ban Overturned']

At an April 11, 1996 health and safety meeting in North Carolina, Roger Stephens, director of federal OSHA’s Office of Ergonomics, called ergonomics the top U.S. occupational health problem. He said at the conference:

"It is the number-one growing problem, the number one problem compensation-wise... and Congress has simply said... do not do any of it now. And every time we try to do it, they come back and take away a few more million dollars in our continuing [budget] resolutions."

He also went on to admit that OSHA is not now writing ergonomics citations under the law’s General Duty Clause, as it had done in the past. The regulation of ergonomic hazards "just ain’t getting done," he said. "The agency is just trying to survive. OSHA is fighting for its life."

Remember this when you go to the polls in November.

British trade union members are not alone in identifying job stress as a health issue: a growing body of scientific evidence holds that job stress contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease and premature death. Over the last decade a number of studies have linked job stress with elevated blood pressure during work.


Now a recent study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health has directly linked job stress with death from heart disease. The study has followed about 12,500 Swedish working men, studying stress factors on their job such as the pace of work and the amount of control they had in setting the pace.

During the 14-year study period, 521 of these workers died of heart disease (specifically, cardiovascular disease). The researchers found that workers on jobs with a high speed of work and little control over that speed died at about 2.5 times as often from heart disease than those with slower-paced jobs and more control over their working conditions. All results were adjusted for differences in age, smoking, education, exercise, social class and physical job demands which could have otherwise influenced the results.

The study was conducted by two groups of scientists, one from John Hopkins University and the other from the Swedish National Institute for Psychosocial Factors and Health. In the U.S., by the way, we don’t have an institute like this Swedish one. The closest we have is NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and it just barely escaped the budget ax and total elimination for all time by the 104th Congress.

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