04 July 2011

8 hazardous jobs

Whether you are behind a desk, a steering wheel or a counter, your job may well be making you sick.


From the well-published dangers of asbestos exposure to the joy-robbing effects of job stress, the modern workplace can be really bad for your health. And the dangers often lie in the most unexpected places.

Whereas firefighters tend to be fitter and more healthy than the general population, they do face some unique risks.

No, we're not talking about the obvious heat and flames. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, heart disease causes 45% of deaths among firefighters while on duty.

This risk is particularly high while they're actively fighting fires. According to the researchers, the risk of cardiac death was at least 12 times higher during such emergency duty than during non-emergency duty.

It is thought that stress, pre-existing heart conditions and inhaling environmental pollutants all contribute to the increased risk.

Truck drivers
Apart from spending long hours in a sedentary position and being exposed to high levels of exhaust fumes, truck drivers may also face an increased risk of hearing loss, according to a report in the American Industrial Hygiene Journal.

The noise made by a truck is estimated at an average of about 83 decibels (dB), while the maximum safe noise exposure level over an eight-hour period is 85 dB. So as soon as the driver opens a window or turns on the radio, or when the other traffic on a busy highway ups the noise level, you head over the 85 dB level.

People who work with animals
They nip, bite and scratch, but dirty puncture wounds aren't the only threat facing bird breeders, farmers and veterinarians: they are all at risk of contracting psittacosis (parrot fever).

The usual means of infection is the inhalation of microbes that have entered the air from dried bird faeces or secretions.

Flu-like symptoms usually appear five to 14 days after infection, and may include fever, chills, headache, tiredness, sore muscles, a dry cough, breathing difficulty and chest tightness. Parrot fever can develop into severe pneumonia and could even lead to death.

Without treatment, the fatality rate in humans is 15 - 20%. With timely, appropriate antibiotic treatment, however, risk of death drops to less than 1%.

War correspondents
There is something romantic about journalists and others who face personal danger to report on issues such as wars and genocide, but the price they pay can be high.

Yes, they can be kidnapped, shot or blown up, but even those who return apparently intact may be in trouble. According to an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, both male and female war correspondents had significantly higher weekly alcohol consumption than journalists who did not write about wars.

The study also found that, "war correspondents have significantly more psychiatric difficulties than journalists who do not report on war. In particular, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is similar to rates reported for combat veterans, while the rate of major depression exceeds that of the general population."

Soccer players
In a rather baffling finding, researchers have noticed that Italian soccer players are six times more likely than the general population to develop the degenerative neurological condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The New York Times quotes the researchers speculating that ALS may be related to heavy physical exercise. Alternatively, head trauma or exposure to environmental toxins (in the form of fertilisers and herbicides on soccer fields) are also suspected.

Whereas the reasons for the link are unclear, there is little doubt that even with the increased risk, the chance of developing ALS remains very low. So, no reason to stop playing soccer.

Rock stars, computer people and mechanics
If you work with a screwdriver or spend your day behind a computer keyboard, you're in the same risk group as a Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman (who, according to Rolling Stone magazine, are the two greatest guitarists of all time): you are at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

This hand-numbing condition usually results from swelling in the wrist caused by repetitive hand motion. The swelling leads to pressure on the median nerve where it passes through the carpal tunnel (in the wrist).

Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include tingling and numbness in the thumb, index and middle fingers. In bad cases it can cause a weakening of the thumb muscles and lead to difficulty gripping objects.

In most cases a bit of rest will do wonders. It is important, however, to get rid of the cause by adapting the way you hold your hands when you type, the way you grip screwdrivers, or by making some changes to your guitar technique.

Coal miners
Inhaling large amounts of coal dust places people working in coal mines at high risk of developing black lung disease – so called because the lungs appear black rather than pink, according to WebMD.

In severe cases, large coal nodules can form in the lungs, which can obstruct and hamper air flow.

There is no proven treatment for black lung disease, but some of the symptoms can be managed. The ideal would be simply to avoid coal dust altogether, but in most cases that would mean quitting your job.

According to WebMD, inhaling large amounts of coal dust also places you at an increased risk of developing emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

According to a report released in 2005, the most dangerous job in the US is logging. An estimated 92.4 out of every 100 000 loggers died in 2004, reports CNN.

According to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh), "59% of all logging-related deaths occurred when workers were struck by falling or flying objects or were caught in or between objects. Approximately 90% of these fatalities involved trees, logs, snags or limbs."

Tall, heavy and in league with gravity, trees can be extremely dangerous to those who try to cut them down. Niosh outlines a number of tragic case studies in which felled trees dislodged branches or fell against other trees, setting in motion chain reactions ending in fatalities.

It seems there's more than just a "green" case for felling fewer trees. – (Marcus Low, Health24, updated February 2011)

Read more:
Musicians, take note
Carpal tunnel syndrome


A hazardous profession: War, journalists and psychopathology. Feinstein et al. 159 (9): 1570. American Journal of Psychiatry.
America's most dangerous jobs. CNN.
An A.L.S. puzzle on the soccer field. New York Times.
Black lung disease. WebMD.
Logging alert. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


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