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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
April 28, 2008

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Strokes and health and safety

Stroke is the third biggest killer and the leading cause of severe disability in the UK. It can happen to anyone, of any age, but a number of simple lifestyle changes is all it takes to drastically reduce the chances of it happening, as John Barrick explains.

Stroke currently costs the economy over £7 billion in health-care costs and loss of earnings. Contrary to common perception, a quarter of strokes happen to people of working age and for this reason, it is of growing concern to employers and employees. But there are steps that health and safety practitioners can take to educate colleagues on how they can reduce their risk of having a stroke.

The best way of describing a stroke is a brain attack, which occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Blood carries essential nutrients and oxygen to the brain and, without it, brain cells can be damaged or destroyed, and won’t be able to do their job. Symptoms may include numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of the body, communication problems, slurred speech, visual problems, and confusion.

There are two main causes of stroke. The most common type is an ischaemic stroke, which happens when a clot blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain. The second type of stroke is a bleed, when a blood vessel bursts, causing a haemorrhage into the brain. This is called a haemorrhagic stroke. Both types are sudden, and the effects on the body are immediate.

Blood pressure

High blood pressure is referred to as the “silent killer”. There are no visible symptoms, yet it is the single biggest risk factor for stroke; 40 per cent of all strokes could be prevented by controlling high blood pressure. Having your blood pressure checked regularly is a vital part of stroke prevention, and companies should offer this as part of their occupational health strategy.


Regular physical activity can help lower blood pressure, and encouraging colleagues to go for a brisk walk at lunchtime can help introduce some light exercise into their day, particularly if they are sat working at a desk. Many organisations are introducing lunchtime walking clubs, which are also a great way for employees from across different business areas to get to know each other.


Sticking with the lunchtime theme, it is also important to eat healthy and nutritious food that is low in salt. Most of us are now aware of the advice that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day will help control weight, which is important, as being overweight is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, all of which increase the risk of having a stroke. Too much salt also raises blood pressure, so it may be worthwhile to speak to canteen staff or catering providers in your organisation, if you have them, to discuss the importance of preparing healthy foods and dishes that are low in fat and salt.


Smoking is another big risk factor for stroke. In fact, it doubles the risk because it causes the arteries to fur up and makes the blood more likely to clot. Stopping smoking can cut the risk of a stroke in half — no matter how old you are, or how long you have smoked — so, while giving up is not easy, the long-term benefits make it well worth the effort.


At the end of a busy week, a few drinks on a Friday night down the pub is a regular fixture for many workers. However, it is worth bearing in mind that people who binge drink are twice as likely to have a stroke than non-drinkers (binge drinking is consuming six units or more in a single sitting). Drinking too much alcohol raises blood pressure, and so colleagues should be made aware of the risks so that they can exercise some control over the amount of alcohol they drink.


An individual’s personal life also has a significant bearing on their health, of course, so it is a good idea to have protocols in place to support colleagues who may be suffering with issues such as overwork, redundancy, family problems, and bereavement, all of which can lead to stress and depression. These conditions take a physical toll on the body, and, if they are not treated, they can contribute to long-term health problems detrimental to both the individual and their employer.

Unfortunately, some people are more at risk of a stroke than others simply because of the things they can’t change, which include family history, age (three-quarters of all strokes happen to people over the age of 65) and ethnic background (people of Asian, African and African-Caribbean origin are more at risk).

But, as indicated above, simple lifestyle changes may prevent a stroke from happening, or, if you have been unlucky enough to have suffered one already, can stop it happening again.

Step up for stroke

Stroke Awareness Day is on 13 May and The Stroke Association is asking companies to ‘Step Up for Stroke’ and raise awareness of stroke prevention among their employees by highlighting the importance of a healthy, low-salt diet, and light regular exercise, among other things. Employees are being asked to put their best foot forward and get involved in sponsored walking activities — the Association is giving away FREE pedometers to any company that wants to take part. Workplace events can include a sponsored 10,000 Step Challenge, where employees get their colleagues, friends, and family to sponsor them to walk 10,000 steps in one day. Walking to work, using the stairs rather than the lift, or simply taking a stroll with colleagues during lunchtime is a great way to up your step-count.

To register for a free fundraising pack, call 020 566 1520, or e-mail [email protected]

Of course, 13 May is also the opening day of Safety & Health Expo at the NEC, and fundraising packs will be available on the SHP stand, D62. Our Jolly John campaign (see Mailshot, p24) will culminate in a final weigh-in at 11am on the stand, so please come along to support John and give a final boost to what we’ve raised so far for The Stroke Association.

Further information

The Stroke Association is the only UK charity solely concerned with combating stroke in people of all ages. The charity funds research into prevention, treatment, and better methods of rehabilitation, and helps stroke patients and their families directly through its community services. The Stroke Association also campaigns, educates and informs to increase knowledge of stroke at all levels of society, acting as a voice for everyone affected by stroke.

The Stroke Association website and helpline 0845 3033 100 offer a wealth of information on strokes and the work of the Association.

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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