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​Occupational risk OA

13th September 2018

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There is a strong link between our work and our health. We all spend a lot of time in our jobs and so it is important to analyse the risks involved and understand how our job can affect our health. With osteoarthritis, there can be many risk factors to consider at work. It is vital to assess what factors increase the risk of developing OA and how OA can be managed at work.

Chronic health conditions can have a big impact on our working lives. OA is the most common joint condition in the world and so this is an important issue to consider in the workplace.

The knee is the most common place for OA to develop and 6 million people in the UK currently have OA of the knee. There are various risk factors for developing OA and this condition can affect other areas of the body, such as the hips, hands, spine and feet.

Symptoms of OA include stiffness, joint pain and limited movement capability. With OA, some of the cartilage covering the bones degenerates, which can cause other issues, including thickening of ligaments.

People are at increased risk if they are overweight or obese and take little exercise. Low impact exercise is encouraged for OA sufferers, such as swimming and cycling. These exercises keep the joints moving without placing any strain on the tissues. They are excellent options for OA sufferers looking to keep active, lose weight and be healthy, without aggravating their joints.

Although exercise might feel difficult at first with painful joints, gentle exercise can help and walking can actually be good for OA. The compression and decompression of body weight can help the cartilage to absorb nutrients. However, if pain is an issue, then exercise that doesn’t bear weight is a better choice.

Many older people enjoy gardening and this is a typical way that people can aggravate OA of the knee. Always use a kneeling pad and ideally invest in a small gardening chair so that you don’t need to kneel and your weight can be supported

Managing OA in the workplace

In the workplace, there are many risk factors associated with OA, including activities such as kneeling and squatting, repetitive bending of the knee and load bearing when the knee is flexed. Some jobs are particularly risky for OA sufferers, such as physical jobs that involve kneeling, such as laying carpets or other jobs in the construction industry and in gardening.

There are various ways to reduce the risks of OA and manage the condition in the workplace. Observing some of these will protect workers’ health. Employees should take regular breaks from their jobs to relax the joints. If someone is diagnosed with OA, they should have a phased re-introduction to work, so that their joint and muscle strength has time to develop, perhaps moving from part time to full time work over a period of time.

Duties should be modified where needed for returning workers and postures should be changed regularly. So, if a job requires standing for a period of time, there should be breaks of sitting and if the job is mostly seated, the breaks should be standing. No posture should be maintained for longer than 20 or 30 minutes at a time and there should also be periods of walking involved in the working day.

It is also possible to use anti-fatigue matting for standing in one place and insoles can also be worn to support the feet. Workers should also be educated on the correct way to lift and handle objects to support the joints and protect them.

Risk factors of OA in the workplace

While there are many ways to manage OA in the workplace and support people who already have the condition, there are also some ways that a workplace can increase the risk for healthy workers developing OA.

Some risk factors other than kneeling and crouching include mechanical vibrations from tools, such as those found on a building site. For example, pneumatic drills have been linked with people developing OA of the elbow, as a higher proportion of people who have used this equipment have suffered than would normally be expected.

Some other jobs associated with OA include blacksmiths, diggers and miners, as well as those who use drills and compressed air power tools. Construction workers were found to have a higher incidence of developing OA of the knee, fingers and hip and these people carry heavy loads regularly. Miners have a high incidence of developing OA of the knee, with these people crouching for long periods in cramped conditions.

OA of the fingers has been seen as a problem for those working in jobs such as dressmaking and piano playing, while using power tools and vibrating drills is also associated with the condition. Other jobs where finger OA is a concern are cotton pickers and diamond cutters. OA of the spine has been seen to affect rugby players.

Even regular office workers can develop problems with OA, due to repetitive movements. Consider sitting in the same position for long periods at a computer desk. This can cause problems for the spine, as the body does not get to stretch out in a natural shape. Also, the repetitive movement of using a mouse or the computer keyboard can cause problems for the wrist and fingers.

Preventing OA at work

It is a difficult task to try to prevent OA and some jobs necessarily involve more repetitive motions and strains on certain joints than others. One way to protect the body is to develop good strength overall to give the frame strong support. Use good posture at all times, for example when sitting at a desk and when lifting heavy loads. Keep your weight to healthy levels and exercise frequently.

Office workers should be encouraged to take regular screen breaks. The work stations provided by the employer should be well-designed for comfort and should include proper office chairs with back supports and arm rests, desk with alterable heights, footstools if necessary, mouse pads and wrist supports. Each worker should be encouraged to ask for what they need to feel more comfortable at work, with physical health a top priority for preventing and managing OA.

Companies should offer extensive training to all workers to help them understand how to work safely and protect themselves. It is also in the company’s best interests to keep their workers healthy and productive. Training should be regular, so that employees don’t forget the methods they have learned and any new staff will be familiar with the instructions.

Outside of the office, people can also do much to protect themselves. Although OA is often seen as an inevitable disease of ageing, many people do not think this is true. There are some things we can all do to protect ourselves, including keeping a healthy weight and avoiding squatting or kneeling for any length of time.

Much time is lost each year due to staff being off work due to problems with OA in their joints. It makes sense for workers and employers to be aware of the risks and to do all they can to create a workplace that is ergonomically designed to combat the risks of OA at work. Companies will benefit from educating workers and the health of employees will improve.

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