Health and Safety Report
Volume 5, Issue 10 - October 2007

In the News

Depression in the Workplace - Better Care Improves Worker's Mental Health and Bottom Line print this article

Many of us have known someone close - a friend, family member or co-worker - who has suffered the debilitating affects of depression. They withdraw from us and lose interest in their regular activities, have little or no energy, seem sad, irritable or hostile and/or full of despair. And there is no amount of "cheering up", exercise or vacation that can chase the depression away.

That's because depression is a serious medical illness. It's more than just a feeling of being sad or "blue" for a few days. These depressed moods and feelings persist for weeks, deepening and eventually interfering with everyday life.

Nearly three million Canadians will experience depression in their lifetime. People in their working years, between the ages of 24 and 44 are most affected. It is no surprise then that depression is widespread in the workplace. A recent Ipsos Reid Survey showed that 11% of Canadian workers say they have been diagnosed with depression, and one in five believe they suffer from depression but have never been properly diagnosed. Recent studies confirm that most people with mental illness are not diagnosed and treated appropriately.

The impact of undiagnosed depression

The fact that this highly prevalent illness is under diagnosed and under treated costs the Canadian economy billions of dollars in lost productivity and absenteeism. Mental health disorders are more costly (workplace and health care costs) than many physical health conditions.

People with depression will try hardest to hide their illness at work. Fear of hurting their future opportunities, being reprimanded, fired or disgraced for feeling or acting "down", and feelings of shame can prevent someone from seeking help. They may also not realize that they have a legitimate and treatable illness.

Some people abuse alcohol and/or drugs to cope with their depression. A person can become so withdrawn they can't get out of bed to face the day. Their unexplained, frequent "sick days" can make family and co-workers resentful, and in some workplaces, result in dismissal. Higher absenteeism and turnover and lost productivity can affect the organization's bottom line and performance.

If there are negative attitudes in the workplace about mental illness and depression, employees may suffer in silence and not seek help. If depression is not treated, it can last for months or years and even result in death. 15% of people with severe depression commit suicide, says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

What to look for

Depression may begin gradually or suddenly. A person who is clinically depressed will seem more withdrawn and isolated than usual. Although not everyone experiences this illness in the exact same way, there are common signs:

  • Sadness

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities they used to enjoy

  • Change in weight

  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping

  • Energy loss, chronic fatigue

  • Slowness of speech

  • Alcohol/drug abuse

  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and or despair

In the workplace, a person with depression may exhibit any of the following signs:

  • Difficulty in making decisions

  • Decreased productivity

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Drop in dependability

  • Increase in errors in work

  • Prone to accidents

  • Frequent lateness, increased absenteeism

  • Lack of enthusiasm for work

Someone who has been experiencing several of these signs for more than a few weeks should seek help.

Getting help

If you think a co-worker may be experiencing depression, you should continue to show them respect. You can help make the person feel valued in the workplace and offer encouragement and positive words every day.

Discreetly encourage your co-worker to speak to their doctor, an on-site occupational health nurse, or your employee assistance professional. These people can direct them toward appropriate treatment such as counseling, self-help groups, family and peer support, or provide referrals to specialists who may recommend medication or psychotherapy. These treatments are highly successful, but they will only work if the depressed person takes the first step to seek help and get a professional diagnosis.

Enhanced care for depression helps improve worker health and productivity

Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80% of people who are affected, allowing them to get back to their regular activities.

Employees seeking treatment for depression who participated in a program that included telephone outreach had fewer symptoms, worked more hours and had greater job retention than participants receiving usual care, according to a study in the September 26 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study, "Enhanced Depression Treatment and Work Outcomes," finds that a telephone outreach and care management program that screened depressed workers and encouraged them to enter outpatient treatment and directed them to psychotherapy and/or medication for their illness led to improved productivity, greater staff retention and happier staff members.

The results suggest that the benefits of providing enhanced care for workers who are depressed go beyond improved health to workers and extend to improved workplace outcomes. The financial value to employers in terms of recovered hiring, training, and salary costs shows that many employers gain a positive return on investment from outreach and enhanced treatment of workers suffering with depression.

Bottom line - everyone benefits by making depression their business - and by taking and giving better care.


Learn more about depression from the Canadian Mental Health Assoc

For more resources and ideas on how to make you and your workplace more mentally healthy, visit Mental Health Works

Read the media release from the Journal of the American Medical Association about the study

Hazard Alerts

Plunger Lift System Causes Serious Head Injuryprint this article

A plunger lift system is a method of unloading gas and oil wells. While this type of system can be safe and effective if properly installed and serviced, a number of factors create significant hazards for the workers.

WorkSafe Alberta recently reported a serious injury involving a plunger lift system. A service technician was servicing the system when an ice plug in the wellhead lubricator released. The ice plug struck the technician in the head, and he sustained a fractured skull and permanent vision loss.

An investigation revealed there have been several near-miss incidents involving plunger lift systems, however these were never reported because no one was injured.

WorkSafe Alberta has released a Hazard Alert bulletin to promote the importance of safety training and awareness for anyone using this technology.

What happened

A number of factors contributed to this incident. Ice had accumulated in the lubricator assembly because the work site had no method of thawing the wellhead. The work site didn't have proper procedures in place to identify hazards. Operators were not trained in the safe use of the plunger lift system. Furthermore, the oil and gas industry, to date, has no standard requirements for installing and servicing this equipment, and no way to track incident trends because there is no record of previous occurrences.

Other conditions can cause plunger lift systems to malfunction. Ice, hydrates, wax, paraffin and sand are produced elements that can affect the equipment's performance. Removing lubricator components with pressure contained above or below ice plugs, sand bridges, etc. can cause equipment failure. So can poorly designed springs or stops that are supposed to absorb the plunger's impact at the surface, plungers that travel with little or no fluid, changes in line pressures and plunger configuration, and other factors.

Safe work practices

Manufacturers should provide safe work guidelines and hazard training and make industry aware of how to safely use plunger lift systems. Oil and gas companies should develop standard procedures for installing and servicing plungers. WorkSafe Alberta further recommends that equipment be designed to withstand operating conditions, and have built-in safety features. The equipment should be impact and pressure rated. Electronic control boxes should be set to record high velocity plunger times and to shut down after one or more high velocity arrivals.

In addition, well operators should discontinue a common but dangerous practice - that of listening for plunger activity by leaning their ear against the lubricator.

You can read the full alert for further recommendations on how to prevent injuries from plunger lift systems.

OSH Answers

Safety From The Bottom Upprint this article

Feet can get hurt on the job. They can get punctured, crushed, sprained, and lacerated. A lack of attention to foot safety can also cause slips, trips and falls, which account for 15 percent of all reported disabling workplace injuries in Canada.

Feet don't just get hurt while in motion - they also can be injured when standing in one place for too long. The human foot is designed for mobility. Continuous standing not only tires the feet but can cause the joints of foot bones to become misaligned. It can even cause inflammation that might later lead to rheumatism and arthritis.

To make the problem even worse, people often wear shoes or boots that no foot could happily endure. Wearing the wrong footwear can cause blisters, calluses, corns, arthritis, toe malformations, fallen arches, bunions and other problems.

A worker with sore feet is often less alert, and more susceptible to various injuries at work. The first step to reducing foot problems in the workplace is to identify relevant hazards. Start with these factors:

How the job is designed

Tasks should incorporate varying body positions that use different muscles. Job rotation, job expansion and teamwork, as well as frequent short rest breaks, can all help reduce the toll on your feet.

How the workplace is designed

A workstation should allow the worker room to change body position. A foot-rail or footrest allows the worker to shift from one leg to the other and reduces stress on the lower legs.

What we stand on

An unyielding floor, such as concrete, has the impact of a hammer on the feet when stepped on. Any other type of floor is preferable - wood, cork, carpeting, or rubber. As a last resort, anti-fatigue matting provides cushioning that reduces foot fatigue, but should be used with caution (see OSH Answers to read about the limitations of matting).

What we wear on our feet

Fashion can be painful! Pointy-toed, high heels at work are a bad idea anytime, but not all footwear problems are so obvious. When choosing footwear, look for the following qualities:

  • The inner side of the shoe must be straight from the heel to the end of the big toe.

  • The shoe must grip the heel firmly.

  • The forepart must be roomy enough for the toes to move freely.

  • The shoe must have a fastening across the instep to prevent the foot from slipping when walking.

  • The shoe must have a low, wide-based heel; flat shoes are recommended.

  • The shoe must fit. Don't count on it stretching.

  • Shock-absorbing insoles can help cushion the foot from impact.

For workers exposed to foot hazards, many Canadian occupational health and safety laws require protective footwear certified by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA Standard "Protective Footwear," CAN / CSA-Z195-02, Reaffirmed 2007).

Read OSH Answers to find out more about foot care, foot safety policies and how to select appropriate footwear.

Partner News

Alberta Gets Moving!print this article

Employees who find time to exercise tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, cope better with stress, produce more at work and have better alertness, reaction time and memory. In addition, a physically active workforce has less turnover and absenteeism, fewer injuries, and incurs fewer healthcare, disability and insurance costs to the employer.

To help employers do their part, the Alberta Centre for Active Living has launched a user-friendly website - Physical Activity @ Work - that will help facilitate physical activity among staff and create a positive work environment.

Anyone is free to get active, but physical activity is more than just a matter of choice. In the workplace, where we spend most of our days, an active lifestyle can be shaped by the people and circumstances surrounding us.

The Physical Activity @ Work site offers several ways to promote getting active. There's a step-by-step planning guide, a personal Activity Tracker that allows employees to set personal goals and track their physical activity, "Yoga @ Your Desk" videos (in English and French), success stories from Alberta companies with physical activity programs, and a section on managing safety risks associated with exercise. Employers can also read about how physical activity improves the bottom line.

Here are just a few ways to foster a more physically active work environment, which are mentioned on the site:

  • Showing the company's commitment to work-life balance, e.g., allowing employees to work part time or use flex time for a fitness regime;
  • Helping employees access community fitness facilities and walking trails;

  • Encouraging active commuting;

  • Involving all employees (e.g., shift workers, those in different offices) in fitness initiatives;

  • Participating in national and local active events to promote teambuilding;

  • Providing information to staff through lunch-and-learns, fitness assessments and personal trainers; and

  • Offering physical facilities, such as showers, lockers and fitness rooms.

While the site is targeted to Alberta workplaces, employers from all over Canada can benefit from the ideas, tips and resources on the site. Web users have the option to subscribe to updates on the Physical Activity @ Work website, and to other sections of the Alberta Centre for Active Living website.

Go to the Physical Activity @ Work website for more information.


Wanted: MSDS Writers to Test Drive New Softwareprint this article

Anyone who has had to review and use Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) will not be surprised to hear that not all MSDSs are of the highest quality. To help improve the quality both now and for the future, CCOHS is developing innovative and affordable software that will help authors produce accurate WHMIS-compliant MSDSs.

WHMIS requires that manufacturers and suppliers provide MSDSs with complete and accurate information, to help workers know about product hazards and how to work safely with them. In fact, inaccurate MSDSs can have a major impact to worker health and safety. Between 2000 and 2005, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board cited inaccurate MSDSs as playing a role in 7 industrial accidents - that resulted in 26 fatalities and 133 injuries!

Through its Inquiries Service, CCOHS often receives questions from Canadians about information provided on MSDSs and how to work safely with products. Additionally, CCOHS specialists have listened to concerns about MSDSs from various users including employers, workers, and government regulators. There may be even more challenges in the future as the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) is implemented and chemical manufacturing companies try to produce good MSDSs with new rules for hazard criteria and MSDS format.

Building on the experience of the CCOHS CHEMINFO specialists, CCOHS' new MSDS writing software addresses many of the MSDS writing challenges. Standardized phrases are provided for all text sections of the MSDS - with the bonus feature that French versions of these phrases will be generated "on the fly".

Other features of the software include the following:

  • The electronic WHMIS worksheet helps systematically classify hazards for the product.

  • Phrases for important non-WHMIS hazards (e.g. combustible dusts) often overlooked by other MSDS writers are presented.

  • Links are provided to reliable, credible chemical hazard and regulatory information, including CCOHS' CHEMINFO.

  • Using hazard logic-drivers, the MSDS software helps to provide consistent and comprehensive hazard control advice for each product.

  • Most importantly, the phrases are provided in clear language - because we know just how many MSDS users struggle to understand the meaning of this information.

CCOHS' MSDS Writer will produce an ANSI 16-section MSDS, however future releases will incorporate the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The GHS version will be developed in time to help Canadian chemical manufacturers implement the changes that GHS may create for WHMIS requirements to MSDSs.

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