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Layoffs, Work Stress Linked to Injury and Illness

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WebMD Health News

April 16, 2001 -- A new study now links the threat of layoffs to workplace injuries. And a second study shows that even people who keep their jobs say work stress and job pressure is hurting their health.

The two reports in the new issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology sound an alarm. They predict that unless there are changes in the workplace, the current wave of layoffs will bring with it a wave of workplace injuries and both physical and mental illnesses.

Tahira M. Probst, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University in Vancouver, looked at workers in two large food-processing plants owned by the same company. One of the plants had just had a wave of layoffs -- and there were rumors (which turned out to be true) that the plant was eventually going to close. Probst's study found that workers who believed these rumors and who were upset by them had significantly more on-the-job injuries.

"We found that workers who are worried about losing their job -- and who are dissatisfied with that -- tend to have less motivation to comply with safety procedures," Probst tells WebMD. "They saw they were not being rewarded for complying with safety procedures and had less knowledge about them. Down the line, if you don't have the knowledge and motivation, you are going to get injured."

The less a worker knew and cared about safety, the greater his or her chance of having an actual injury. Workers who worried about being laid off figured that they had a better chance of keeping their jobs if they worked faster, took more risks, and paid less attention to quality.

"When I met with the workers, they had heard the company message that safety was the number one concern -- but they didn't believe it," Probst says. "The assembly line workers said, 'We all know they are going to look at production numbers, and quality is the next thing they will look at, and safety is last.' But what I was consistently getting from managers was that safety was number one. This is the burning question: Whose perception is correct? Is the organization really concerned about safety and the message is not being communicated, or are the employees correct in their perception? I don't know."

One clue comes from what the company did after the study. Probst said she recommended that the company reward workers for better safety records. To the best of her knowledge, no such change was made.

Steven L. Sauter, PhD, is chief of the organization science and human factors branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "I think this is a very significant contribution," Sauter tells WebMD. "What the research needs to do in this area is tie this job insecurity to these types of outcomes. Most importantly, this study looks at the mechanisms for poor safety compliance. You need to know these mechanisms to design interventions."

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