Introduction Occupational chronic solvent encephalopathy (CSE) often leads to early retirement. However, little is known about work ability in solvent exposed workers in general. The aim was to study the effect of work-related and non-occupational factors on work ability in active solvent exposed population.
Methods A questionnaire on exposure and health was sent to 3640 workers in four solvent-exposed fields, i.e. painters and floor-layers, boat builders, printers, and metal workers, resulting in 1730 responses. Work Ability Score (WAS), a single question item of Work Ability Index, solvent exposure, demographic factors, chronic diseases, and employment status were considered in univariate and multivariate analysis. The findings were compared to those of corresponding national blue-collar reference population (n=221), and in addition to a small cohort of workers with CSE (n=18).
Results WAS of solvent-exposed workers was lower than that of national reference group, the difference being significant in the oldest age group, but higher than that of workers diagnosed with CSE. Number of chronic diseases and age were the strongest explanatory factors of poor work ability. Solvent exposure was a weak independent risk factor for reduced WAS. Work ability was highest in boat builders, followed by metal workers and printers, and lowest in painters and floor layers.
Conclusions In general, the strongest explanatory factors of reduced WAS were chronic diseases, age, and working status. The weak effect of solvents on work ability is in line with improved occupational hygiene and declined solvent exposure levels in an industrialised country. As a single question WAS is easily included in occupational screening questionnaires.