Issue 7: January 1999


The Mainstream Research Market Document is produced annually by HSE's Research Strategy Unit. It serves to increase general awareness of HSE's research activities within the Mainstream Research Programme and to inform HSE's wide range of current and potential contractors of our research interests, forward priorities and of how HSE identifies and meets its research needs.

The Mainstream Research Programme covers research interests both on and offshore and these interests are covered by four Portfolio Research Groups (PRGs), each of which has a number of member Subject Research Groups (SRGs).

The Mainstream Research Market document describes HSE's research in the context of its SRGs. For each SRG: the areas of interest and scope; the current research activities; and the future research priorities are described. Planned projects are also listed for a number of SRGs to indicate work which HSE has already decided to commission in the coming year.

Last year's document introduced a new initiative, a 'competition of ideas'. This initiative presented identified broad ideas for research against which contractors were invited to submit research proposals within a specified period.

HSE received over two hundred proposals in response to last year's exercise and of these, approximately 25% of the proposals were successful.

An internal evaluation of the competition of ideas exercise has recently been undertaken. This has provided a range of useful suggestions for improving the internal management and consultation procedures for subsequent exercises.

The competition of ideas will feature once again in the 1999/2000 edition of the Mainstream Research Market document and contributions from HSE's Directorates/Divisions and Units are currently being compiled. It is envisaged that the document will be published on12 February 1999 and will be available from RSU as a free publication.

A copy of the new publication will automatically be sent to all individuals, consultants and companies that received or requested a hard copy of the 1998/99 Mainstream Research Market document.



(Contractor: University of Southampton)

Musculoskeletal disorders of the upper limb and neck are a common cause of morbidity, and in some occupational groups they contribute importantly to loss of time from work. Community-based surveys indicate a prevalence of 4 to 20% for pain in specific sites in the neck and upper limb. Primary care morbidity surveys suggest an annual incidence of first consultation on upper limb disorders of approximately 25 per 100.

Two broad groups of risk factors have been identified for upper limb disorders. These are mechanical stresses and psychosocial influences. Their relative importance is unknown and research has been hampered by the absence of a widely agreed approach to the classification of neck and upper limb disorders in epidemiological surveys.

HSE recently sponsored a workshop which used a Delphi technique to establish diagnostic criteria for nine categories of upper limb disorder. These criteria provide a good staring point for epidemiological studies of neck and upper limb complaints in the general population. The criteria have been used to develop a validated questionnaire and examination schedule, suitable for community surveys. This research intends to use these tools in a population-based study to address the following important gaps in current knowledge: the age and sex specific prevalences of pain in the neck, shoulder, elbow and wrist/hand in the general population of men and women aged 25 to 64, and the proportions of such cases arising from specific upper limb pathologies; the relative importance of repetitive occupational use and psychosocial risk factors in specific and non-specific disorders of the upper limb and neck; and the relative impact of specific and non-specific disorders of the upper limb and neck on physical function and quality of life.


(Contractor: Timbersolve Ltd.)

The quality of scaffold boards is currently set either by machine-grading of boards (which tests their strength indirectly), or visual-grading, which limits the detection of important defects. BS 2482 attempted to control the quality of scaffold boards by prescribing performance, however the requirements of this standard have not been accepted by the industry because of perceived shortcomings, both technically and in their practical implementation.

The industry has developed its own set of rules for quality control which are governed by commercial yield rather than structural performance. Consequently, boards of varying quality and unknown capacity are entering the market.

The aim of this project is to develop a simplified set of rules for grading of scaffolding boards which will guarantee performance of the boards and which will also satisfy the commercial requirements of the board producers.


(Contractor: University of Birmingham)

EASE is an expert-judgement computer model for predicting exposures to chemical agents in the workplace. The model was developed using information in HSE's national exposure database and has wide applicability, both in the UK and internationally, for generating data for incorporation into exposure reviews and to meet statutory responsibilities.

In order to demonstrate the reliability of the model and to assess where further development is needed, independent validation studies of the model are required.

This project intends to assess the accuracy of EASE predictions and to determine the consistency of decision making amongst users of EASE. It is intended that the results of the study will then be submitted for publication in a suitable peer-reviewed journal.



(Contractor: DPF Environmental and Occupational)

There is currently a proposal to introduce a new regulation which would require the management of the risk from asbestos in buildings. Asbestos-containing materials which have sustained damage offer the greatest risk and there are a number of techniques/approaches available to reduce the risk in such situations. The material can be removed, repaired, enclosed or encapsulated.

Although these various approaches exist, little or no work has been done to identify the most appropriate technique to use in a particular circumstance or premises-type. More importantly, it has not been established which techniques should not be used in given situations.

This research project intends to provide information and data, through a literature review and field study of current asbestos abatement practice, to formulate judgements about the relative merits of each asbestos abatement technique and the appropriateness of its use in a given circumstance. Details of the cost associated with the use of each technique will also be provided. The study will pay particular attention to UK practices, but will also consider products and practices in other countries. The information generated by the study will ultimately form the basis of HSE guidance and instructions to HSE inspectors.


(Contractor: Loughborough University)

Display screen equipment is continuing to change and diversify. As this process continues, so applications evolve to take advantage of new capabilities of the equipment. One of the concerns which has been expressed about the health effects of new technologies is in relation to non-keyboard input pointing devices, such as mice, trackballs and other such devices.

The objectives of this research project are to: identify the nature, extent and likely causes of health problems resulting from work with non-keyboard input devices; establish design features of non-keyboard input devices which are either desirable or undesirable from the point of view of the users' health and safety, and the relevant important differences between the various types and designs of pointing device; and to establish important features of good working practice (including task design, workstation design and layout and user training requirements) with this equipment.


(Contractor: Leukaemia Research Fund)

Aplastic anaemia is a rare but serious disorder, with an annual incidence rate of between 2 to 5 per million per year in the UK. Although bone marrow transplantation has greatly improved survival, for those individuals who are unable to receive this intensive treatment the 5-year case fatality rates continue to be as high as 75%. Delineation of potentially preventable aetiological exposures is therefore particularly important. Suspected risk factors include radiation, paints, varnishes, paint removers, glues, pesticides, benzene, immunological factors, certain medications and viral disorders. Few analytical epidemiological studies have been carried out to examine the aetiology of acquire aplastic anaemia. Through an interview-based study (which will assess whether exposure to suspected agents is more common in cases than in comparable controls), this study intends to look at the role of occupational exposure to chemicals and environmental exposure to radiation in contributing to the onset of the disease.



HSE commissions a rolling programme of research and research procurement procedures ensure that project proposals are not held up unduly by a long process of aggregation, comparative ranking and 'programme' type annual approval or signing off. HSE's research commissioning system places the primary responsibility on customer Directorates/Divisions/Units to identify and commission the projects that help them achieve their business objectives. In putting forward proposals for potential projects, HSE's Directorates/Divisions/Units operate line management quality control to ensure that proposals meet with their stated research requirements.

The system characteristically operates with a high level of forward commitment, approaching 60-70% of the research budget. This constrains the capacity for commissioning new research and limits the scope and flexibility for radical shifts in priorities. Changes therefore tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Research customers are responsive to the implication of pressure on funds. When funding is tight, Directorates/Divisions/Units are largely self-regulating in the effort they put into generating new proposals, where the likelihood of that work attracting support for funding is reduced. However, with continual increasing pressure on the research budget, it is inevitable that comparative judgements about potential research projects have to be made. The current research commissioning system serves HSE interests well and any research prioritisation mechanism has to guard against the introduction of unnecessary bureaucratic rigidity and/or delay into the system.

There has been an increasing recognition by research customers that structured prioritisation models within Directorates/Divisions/Units are essential. Accordingly, a variety of fit for purpose approaches have been and are being developed. Diversity of models in this respect is not a problem, provided that each enables a structured and defensible judgement to be made on priorities. Three examples of prioritisation models, developed by HSE's Directorate of Science and Technology (DST), Health Portfolio Research Group (HPRG), and Offshore Safety Division (OSD) are described below.

DST Model

The Directorate faces the HSE dilemma of the diverse breadth of competing research topic demands on a limited allocation of the research budget. Each DST Unit prioritises work within a technical area in consultation with other Directorates/Divisions/Units, PRGs and Subject Research Groups (SRGs).

Prioritisation between topic areas is achieved by the use of consistent, transparent and auditable criteria which reflect the importance, immediacy, etc. of the research proposals or research needs and which are shown in Figure 1. The order of the factors does not indicate their relative weightings. Indeed, it is not appropriate (in general) to assign specific weights to factors since the relevance of any factor will depend on the nature of the project and the purpose for which it is undertaken. Broad categorisation into high/medium/low priority groupings, with an anticipated 40:40:20 profile, is best carried out at the time when the Directorate is assembling its bid for funding in the coming financial year. It is unnecessary for the detail of all proposals to be fully worked up at this stage and the initial prioritisation is reviewed as the year progresses and new needs emerge or established ones diminish. Initially, proposers offer a brief rationale for their assessment of priority and this is examined by an independent validation panel to test the evidence in relation to each proposal and how it relates to HSC/E objectives and its consistency with the Directorate's plan of work.

Health PRG Model

The Health PRG method of prioritisation shares many characteristics with that of DST. The approach has been to develop a questionnaire which contains weighted criteria to allow, inter alia, judgement on the fit of a research proposal with Directorate and/or Corporate business needs. The questionnaire was developed by a cross-Directorate working group. It was then tested on a number of proposals put forward by Health SRGs and was shown to work. However, problems had arisen because of the non-executive role of SRGs and the fact that projects assessed by the Health PRG model were not all Health Directorate-sponsored . It is a valuable tool to test that proposals meet business objectives in support of the priorities in occupational health, as laid down in the 1993 Health Risks Review. A summary of the questionnaire is given in Figure 2.

The model will also be of potential value in determining the proper size and extent of topics within a research programme. Used in this way, the Health PRG model is consistent with the OSD model (presented below) in terms of the benefits of prioritising research topics as well as individual research proposals.

OSD Model

OSD considered a number of risk-based approaches, including a review of offshore 'risk' information, such as predicted fatality rate by initiating hazards and a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission research prioritisation process developed by Battell Columbus Laboratories in the 1980s. All were found to be of limited applicability and value. It was decided therefore to use the perspective of an inspector with topic areas to be prioritised. A matrix approach was developed with one axis of the matrix used for issues in the topic areas and the other axis for tools available, of which research is only one. Judgement is also made on the level of knowledge uncertainty and on the risk to HSE if no action is taken. From these factors, and the results of the completed matrix, a priority rating can be made. The model therefore allows for judgement to be made on the appropriateness of research to the issue in question and on its relative importance to warrant support. HSE's other inspection-based Directorates and Divisions, such as the Field Operations Directorate (FOD) and Chemical and Hazardous Installations Division (CHID) have supported this approach. OSD's conclusions from the exercise to develop a prioritisation tool were that:

In summary

HSE's present research procurement system provides confidence that S&T funds are spent on customer needs which have been prioritised within Directorates/Divisions/Units. The issue of how to prioritise between 'best in class' proposals from HSE's various Directorates/Divisions/Units remains. On behalf of HSE's Research Strategy Committee, the Research Strategy Unit (RSU) will draw on the existing prioritisation models and information sources such as Guidelines for Research, PRG/SRG topic strategies and trends in research expenditure to develop pan-Directorate/Divisional/Unit criteria for comparative prioritisation of research topics.



(Contractor: HSL)

Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) are used world-wide as tools in the management of risks from exposure to hazardous substances. Such limits are generally derived from consideration of the available scientific evidence, and in particular from data relating to human and animal toxicity. In many instances, reports in humans of irritation to the eyes, mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract (URT) have been used to establish specific limit values, since such effects are often experienced at the lower end of the exposure range over which substances express their toxicity. However, such reports are often found to be of ill-defined subject sensations and there can be considerable difficulty in the interpretation of these observations because of the generally poor description of the nature of the effects experienced.

The purpose of this project was to develop an irritancy questionnaire-style tool as a method of collecting data on the experience of irritancy in the URT and eyes, reported by people exposed to substances which might potentially be encountered in a workplace environment.

Following a review of techniques and approaches used for the measurement of human sensory irritation and exploration of the use of questionnaires by several research teams as part of behavioural toxicology programmes, an irritancy questionnaire was developed. The questionnaire was piloted in a study of respondents' recall of irritance and in investigations of concurrent irritance reported by human volunteers taking part in a range of controlled atmosphere studies into various chemicals, such as: tetrahydrofuran; methyl ethyl ketone; trimethylbenzene; 1-methoxy-2-propanol; and toluene. In the latter stages of the project, the questionnaire was used to investigate the irritant potential of ethyl acetate.

The questionnaire allowed the standardised, documented collection of precise and structured data relating to concurrent or remembered exposure to irritant substances. The questionnaire met the identified requirements for a technique or instrument to measure irritancy. It was both comprehensive and detailed enough in its description of symptoms of irritancy of URT and eyes and met the other requirements for 'ease of use' within the context of controlled atmosphere suite-type studies of irritancy.


(Contractor: Silsoe Research Institute)

On-farm accidents cause (on average) one death per week. The purpose of this project was to assess the extent to which ergonomics or human factors (the multidisciplinary science of human-technology interactions) have been implicated in fatal agricultural accidents in the UK.

All fatal on-farm accidents in England, Scotland and Wales occurring between April 1992 and March 1997 were studied by reviewing the HSE MARCODE/COFFIN Reports and HSE FOCUS reports (for 1996-97), and by analysing the 'Significant Factors' cited therein. From this initial work, approximately 10% of fatalities were found to involve a significant ergonomics component, suspected or identified through loss of operator integrity. 'Operator error' or 'unsafe systems of work' were the most commonly cited Significant Factors in this group of fatalities.

Further investigation of these fatalities was then undertaken, through examination of all reports associated with each accident, and interviews with those parties who had circumstantial knowledge of the events surrounding each fatality, such as HSE Agricultural Inspectors. Analysis of human factors issues involved indicated that tractors, tree work and electrocution were the main areas of concern. A separate analysis of all tractor fatalities confirmed the significant role of tractor braking systems, often in association with loss of operator integrity through mistakes or violations. The pre-eminence of operator integrity and attitude as a contributory factor in on-farm fatalities suggests that a participatory approach with the agricultural community in developing or evolving safe systems of work may be appropriate.



(Contractor: WS Atkins)

Following HSE's investigation into the major fire at The Associated Octel Company Ltd in February 1994, the need to review emergency isolation measures to prevent or minimise loss of containment of dangerous substances was highlighted, due to the lack of publicly-available information on the topic.

In 1996, HSE issued draft guidance on remote isolation measures, based on a survey of current best practice in the industry. Following comments on the draft guidance, HSE commissioned this research to review the guidance and to produce a revised guidance note. In order to review the initial guidance, the contractor has: analysed the prescriptive approach presented in detail; undertaken a literature review; had detailed discussions with industry representatives; and has undertaken detailed risk assessment calculations, which have considered realistic plant scenarios, identified during discussions with industry.

The approach in the initial guidance was based on setting a limit using a fraction of the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards (CIMAH) threshold for the substance being stored or conveyed, which could be released before isolation occurred. A 1% limit was chosen as a suitable value, together with an assumed time of 20 minutes to isolate the supply without a Remotely-Operated Shut Off Valve (ROSOV) being in place. These values then allowed calculation of the pipe diameter above which a ROSOV would be required for each substance.

Work undertaken in this study has shown that this approach, whilst providing a simple and extremely practical method, does not provide a consistent or acceptable level of risk. This is because it does not cater for other important factors such as: engineering or operational considerations; location; population distribution; and weather conditions for which each installation will be different. The revised draft guidance produced recommends a practical step-by-step approach for carrying out assessment of the need for fitting ROSOVs. The approach adopted is one of identifying and discussing the key issues, with these being structured into a decision tree, supported by some examples. The ultimate decision is the responsibility of the individuals, such as plant operators, engineers and managers conducting the assessment. A full report of the work will be published through HSE's Contract Research Report route.


All these titles are available as priced publications from HSE books or from DIAS for HSE staff.

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