Disease saps our energy. Our productivity slips, we miss work or school, and our healthcare expenses rise. We may blame our work, or work environment, for the illness. But that may only be part of the equation. “Is it the chicken or the egg?” asks Dr. Ulyee Choe, Polk County Health Department director and a Polk County Medical Association (PCMA) member. “There are multiple reasons [for diseases like carpal tunnel syndrome]. You just can’t narrow it down.”
“You’re sort of a detective. You have to go in there and find out what is there,” says Dr. Karen Carlson, a Lakeland occupational and environmental medicine physician, as well as a PCMA member.
When trying to get to the root cause, consider issues like a sedentary lifestyle and obesity, and how work may be contributing to your problem. Parking at the far end of the parking lot, taking the stairs, bringing healthy snacks and exercising during lunch may help. Those who are chronically ill should follow a proper diet, exercise, visit their doctor regularly and follow medication/treatment regimens, Dr. Choe adds.
Several local physicians converged to discuss certain diseases that in some ways are connected to the workplace.
1) Stress-Related Diseases
Stress at work and at home can cause or exacerbate a number of physical and psychological problems, from high blood pressure to anxiety, diabetes, and headaches. People may not want to acknowledge the psychological aspects of it, Dr. Carlson observes. “A lot of people can benefit from stress relievers,” she says.
But getting to the root of the stress is a better long-term remedy than aspirin or texting your friend about it. “Find out what is causing your stress and how to deal with it, rather than scrunching up muscles,” Dr. Carlson says.
The best solution might be making peace with that co-worker who shares the same cubicle, or getting a mediator, or transferring to another office. Employee assistance programs may help. “It’s better for your company that you are happy in your job, because you are more productive,” she advises. If stress interferes with daily activities, a mental health professional should be consulted, Dr. Choe points out.
“Some people are prone to migraine headaches,” says Dr. Zahid Choudary, a neurologist with Clark and Daughtrey Medical Group, a division of Lakeland Regional Health Systems. “We can get triggers from job-related activities.”
Any headache is painful, but the migraine differs from a tension or sinus headache. Some are preceded by a warning sign: An aura or very brief flashes of light in front of the eyes. Migraines can last for two days, causing people to miss work or visit the hospital Emergency Room. They may be triggered by sounds or lights.
When a migraine starts, it’s best to take medication, like an analgesic, immediately to avert a full-blown headache, he says. Anyone getting migraines three or four times a month, or who can’t remain on the job for their regular hours, should see a neurologist, he recommends.
Avoid common triggers like chocolate, cheese, hot dogs and salami, shift work, or excessive amounts of TV or computer work. Sunglasses may help computer users tolerate bright computer screens. Stress management also may be effective.
Migraine sufferers also should drink more water, limit caffeine, avoid hunger, and have a back-up plan so your work gets done when you’re incapacitated, Dr. Choe elaborates.
For an industrial coater or car painter, a sensitivity can develop to toluene diisocyanate, a spray-on they’re not likely to be exposed to anywhere but on the job, says Dr. Kenneth Phillips, an area occupational medicine physician. It can cause an asthma attack, a fatal asthma attack. “They can still work, they just lose that job,” he says.
Others may develop sensitivities to toner from copying machines, or experience irritation from hand soaps and bleaches in the workplace, adds Dr. Carlson. Reactions may pose problems without being a “real allergy.” Dr. Carlson explains, “Most of the time people don’t have a real allergy to something at the workplace.”
Skin dryness may be caused by removing the fatty protective barrier to the skin when washing hands frequently, as restaurant employees are advised to do, she says. Others experience problems with fragrances, or cigarette smoke.
Years ago people sucked up a lot of second-hand smoke in the workplace, where co-workers smoked across the counters or in small, windowless offices. Now they have to smoke outside on patios or other designated areas, where the impact on co-workers is minimized. Smokers face the steepest consequences for their habit: It increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and death from chronic obstructive lung diseases.
Still, residues on old carpeting, wafting smoke on terraces, and other employee gathering places tend to be more irritating. “Most people avoid smokers. They tend to stand upwind,” Dr. Carlson says.
5) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
While some job environments may exacerbate carpal tunnel syndrome, experts acknowledge it’s not caused by work. The first signs actually may occur at night, when many people flex their wrists. “There’s just too many factors to say it’s 100 percent related to their occupation,” says Dr. Choe, citing genetics as a factor in the canal size.
The disorder has been more problematic for assembly workers. Wrist braces, cortisone shots, and physical therapy may provide some relief, but some opt for surgery to relieve pain and discomfort in the hand, wrist, and arm. To read more about the treatment options for this ailment, turn to page 12.
Outdoor workers, including lifeguards, gardeners, coaches, street repair and construction workers, are at risk for skin cancers, sunburn, premature aging, and cataracts from ultraviolet radiation (UV). Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials recommend limiting exposure, sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, a hat, covering up, and UV-absorbent sunglasses.
When temperatures climb, working in the heat can have serious health consequences, such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, OSHA officials say. They recommend drinking water frequently in small amounts, frequent breaks in the shade, small meals before work, and working in the shade whenever possible.
7) Infectious Diseases
The workplace, and any place where there’s physical interaction, puts people at higher risk for colds, viruses, and flu. Flu vaccines are recommended for anyone more than six months old. Folks with jobs in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and restaurants are more at risk, along with cashiers, bank tellers, bus drivers, and mailmen who come in regular contact with the public. “The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu shot,” advises Dr. Choe, who recommends those sick or feverish stay home. “Do not return to work unless you are free of a fever for 24 hours.”
He advises covering your mouth when you cough and washing hands frequently to avoid spreading germs. Dr. Choe also cautions that those with gastrointestinal diseases, including diarrhea and vomiting, also need to stay at home until they’ve fully recovered.
story by CHERYL ROGERS