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Workers’ Perception of Chemical Risks: A Focus Group Study


Address correspondence to Ramona Hambach, Department of Epidemiology and Social Medicine, University of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, Antwerp 2610, Belgium; tel: +32 (0)3 265 27 53; fax +32 (0)3 265 26 40;


Workers’ perceptions with respect to health and safety at work are rarely taken into account when considering the development of prevention programs. The aim of this study was to explore workers’ perceptions of chemical risks at the workplace, in order to investigate the prerequisites for a workplace health program. A qualitative study was conducted involving seven focus groups of 5–10 participants (blue-collar workers) each. All groups were homogeneous in terms of sex, work status, language, and company membership. Results showed that several factors have an important influence on workers’ perception of chemical risks. Workers assess risks by means of both sensory and empirical diagnosis and are concerned about the long-term health consequences. They perceive the threat of chemical risks as high. Despite this, they are resigned to accepting the risks. Existing formal sources of information are rarely consulted because they are judged to be difficult to understand and not user friendly. Instead, workers tend to obtain information from informal sources. Communication problems with and lack of trust in prevention advisers and hierarchy are frequently mentioned. Workers feel that their specific knowledge of their working conditions and their proposals for practical, cost-effective solutions to improve health and safety at the workplace are insufficiently taken into account. The use of focus groups yielded a useful insight into workers’ perceptions of chemical risks. Our findings suggest that training programs for prevention advisers should include topics such as understanding of workers’ perceptions, usefulness of a participatory approach, and communication and education skills.