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May 7, 2015

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Research: Date with destiny


SHP introduces its new research spotlight by looking at an IOSH-funded study. Dr Tom Loney explains why researchers in the United Arab Emirates are assessing the impact of pesticide exposure in date palm agricultural workers.

Al Ain is the fourth largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), located in the Abu Dhabi emirate on the border of Oman. Al Ain has become a leading agricultural centre in the UAE, particularly for date cultivation, with around 50,000 tonnes produced a year.

Pesticides are chemical substances designed to kill a variety of undesirable living organisms that affect crop production. Commonly, pesticides act on target pests by inhibiting the nervous system enzyme acetylcholinesterase. However, they also act on the nervous systems of humans and exposure can cause both acute (e.g. nausea, headaches, tremors, excessive sweating) and chronic health effects (e.g. neuropsychological and muscular disorders).

Agricultural workers in the UAE are predominantly multinational migrant workers with varying educational qualifications, work experience, religious beliefs, cultural practices, literacy rates and native languages. These factors pose challenges for occupational health and safety professionals tasked with ensuring that the workforce adheres to specific pesticiderelated health and safety procedures.

Research outline
The extent of human exposure to chemicals may be characterised using biological monitoring measurements of chemicals or their metabolites in body fluids or tissues. Biological monitoring provides an integrated estimate of exposure by all routes of absorption into the body. It also informs about long-term exposure and helps to assess exposure of an individual subject as a result of their movement within the working environment and individual factors influencing the fate of material that is present and active in an individual cell.

Measurement of organophosphate pesticides and/or their metabolites in urine and blood samples is a widely accepted tool in occupational and environmental exposure assessment. Currently, there is a lack of research investigating the assessment of pesticide exposure and related morbidity in agricultural workers in the UAE.

The study will utilise a prospective observational cohort design with field-based data collection and lab-based data analysis. In total, 246 agricultural workers with two different categories of exposure levels (no exposure/low and high exposure) have been recruited and will be monitored during six five-day monitoring periods: baseline/pre-spraying season, mid-spraying season, end of spraying season, one-month post-spraying season, two months post-spraying season and baseline/pre-spraying of the following season to assess pesticide exposure using blood and urinary analysis, lung function testing, and self-reported symptoms.

A questionnaire that assesses the knowledge, attitude, behaviours and risk perception related to the transportation, handling, storage, application, and disposal of pesticides will be completed by all study participants during the baseline/pre-spraying season time point.

Overarching aims
This research aims to quantify the occupational exposure and toxicological effects of pesticides in migrant agricultural workers in Al Ain. Secondary objectives include evaluating agricultural workers’ knowledge, attitudes, behaviours and risk perception related to pesticide use, and determining the agreement between urinary and blood markers of pesticide exposure.

Implications for profession
The project will reveal the extent and prevalence of the toxicological effects of pesticide exposure in UAE’s agricultural industry, particularly the relationship between chronic pesticide exposure and health. In addition, the research will explore workers’ knowledge, attitudes and risk perception towards pesticides.

Study findings could be used by health and safety professionals to develop evidence-based interventions aimed at improving the control of pesticides by administrative tools, promoting safe working practices, and quantitative surveillance and monitoring of agricultural workers.

Translation of findings into practice
Study data could be used to develop multimedia, multilingual education programmes to enhance the awareness of the health risks associated with the use of pesticides among a multinational migrant workforce with varying educational qualifications, literacy, and native languages.

Next steps
A research paper containing all of the results will be submitted to a medical journal and a full and summary report should be available from IOSH in 2016.

It is hoped that there will be the opportunity to present the data at one of IOSH’s conferences or other occupational health and safety meetings in the Middle East and UK.

Contact Dr Tom Loney, principal investigator, at: [email protected]

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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