High injury rate found among horse-racing staff, with evidence of a tough culture

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Just 11.9% of horse-racing staff who responded to the online survey reported no injuries in the previous 12 months.
Image by  Rodnae Productions

A worrying injury rate was revealed in a just-published study of horse-racing staff in Britain.

Emma Davies and her fellow researchers noted that occupational health is a key priority for the racing industry, yet little research on occupational injuries exists.

The study involved an online survey that set out to identify injury prevalence, injury management practices and attitudes towards workplace injury reporting in horse-racing.

In all, 352 people took part, providing information on injuries in the last 12 months. A total of 1164 injuries were reported by 310 of the participants, representing 3.3 injuries per person in the survey period.

The most common injuries were bruises (23.47% of injuries), lower back pain (14.5%), muscle strain (13.5%), upper back/neck pain (8.7%), lacerations (5.97%), tendon or ligament damage (5.2%) and suspected concussion (5.1%).

Just 42 survey participants (11.9%) reported no injuries in the last 12 months.

The study team, writing in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, identified occupational risk factors for horse-racing staff, beyond the horse itself.

The researchers found there were no significant associations between whether a staff member was injured in the last 12 months and their employment status, job role, years in the industry, working hours, attitude to working hours, perception of job security or perception of job control.

However, when categorized by type of injury, significant associations between the injury type reported and several occupational risk factors were identified: Job control, perception of job security, the hours worked and satisfaction with working hours.

Staff, for example, were statistically more likely to have reported chronic musculoskeletal injuries if they had little to no control over daily tasks. In contrast, staff who had reported no injuries in the last 12 months were statistically more likely to have control over all their daily tasks in the workplace.

There were significant associations between perceived job security and the types of injury a staff member had experienced in the last 12 months. Staff were statistically more likely to report feeling insecure in their future employment if they had experienced a leg/foot fracture, bruised or fractured ribs, a diagnosed concussion, or spinal fractures in the last 12 months.

Staff working 8 to 9 hours a day were at most risk of chronic musculoskeletal injuries, including muscle strain and soft tissue injuries, while those working 10 to 11 hours a day were most likely to report lower back pain.

“Significant associations also occurred between whether staff were satisfied with the hours they worked, and the types of injuries reported,” the authors reported.

Staff who stated they worked too many hours and would prefer to work less, were statistically more likely to report musculoskeletal injuries, including sprained wrists, sprained ankles, muscle strains, lower back pain, nerve damage and fractures of their leg or foot.

A total of 75.3% of staff were likely to seek time-off following fractures, but only 48.6% would take time-off for concussion.

During the 12-month period, staff typically relied on pain management strategies to continue working while injured. Over half reported using over-the-counter medication at least once a week to manage daily tasks at work, with 18% taking painkillers daily.

Only 10% of staff did not use any medication to manage physical pain at work. Use of prescription medication for pain relief has previously been reported in 4 to 8% of racing staff.

Attitudes towards injury management were influenced by financial circumstances, perceived staff shortages, previous injury experiences, and perceived employer expectations.

The researchers said the high injury prevalence identified in the study could result in decreased workforce efficiency, poor physical health, and negative implications on retention and career longevity.

The perception of invisible injuries, such as concussions, and their subsequent management should be of immediate concern to racing organizations, they said.

The study team, discussing their findings, characterised the injury rate as high.

They said there was an unexpectedly high rate of survey drop-out – 43.75% – after participants had reported their personal injury experiences.

“This finding would suggest that participants who began the survey were willing to report their injuries but chose not to continue the survey when asked to consider the psychosocial factors or wider effects of the injury experienced.”

It has been suggested that pain is a culturally accepted construct within certain vocations, and thus positively embraced as a sign of success or “fitting in”. This, they said, could explain the drop-out rate in the survey.

Anecdotally, those working in the equestrian and horse-racing industries may be more likely to verbalize injuries as a “badge of honour” – a phenomenon recently identified in a study, with riders likely to show off injuries as a sign of their commitment to the hard work of owning and riding horses.

“Wider equestrian culture has been shown to take a stoic approach to injury, and riders often revel in physical risk rather than take steps to mitigate them, which may be similar to the attitude seen in horse-racing staff here.”

There was a tendency for staff to under-report occupational injuries to their employer, the authors said.

Women were less likely to report musculoskeletal injuries to their employer, as well as less likely to seek medical attention and take time off compared to their male counterparts.

The authors noted that, within racing, significant strides have been made regarding gender equality, with current estimations of a 70:30 split (female to male) at racing yards.

“However, there are still some residual perceived sex imbalances which can act as key barriers for women in racing to advance in the industry.

“As a result of the potential gender biases within the workforce culture in racing, female staff may be less likely to report injuries compared to their male counterparts for fear of being viewed as weaker.

“Employers within the racing industry should be conscious that female staff may be more likely to report injury behaviours differently to their male counterparts,” they said.

Stud and stable staff reported the highest rates of injury within this study, and were a key risk group for under-reporting injury.

"As a result of the potential gender biases within the workforce culture in racing, female staff may be less likely to report injuries compared to their male counterparts for fear of being viewed as weaker," the researchers said.
Photo by Mídia

It would be worthwhile to explore the personal injury experiences of racing grooms, considering physical, mental, occupational and lifestyle implications, the researchers said.

Further research should look at whether there is an injury minimalisation culture within horseracing staff and the effects this may have on injury management within stud and training yards.

A national campaign was proposed to promote concussion awareness in stud and stable staff in racing, which would aim to increase concussion knowledge, reduce the stigma of reporting, and direct staff to appropriate support services.

“The industry attitudes towards injury reporting and management seen in this study may provide opportunities to influence workplace safety within horseracing,” they said.

The study team comprised Davies, Lorna Cameron and Jane Williams, all with the Equestrian Performance Research Centre at Hartpury University in Gloucestershire; John Parker, with the university’s Sport and Exercise Research Centre; and Will McConn-Palfreyman, with the SportScotland Institute of Sport in Stirling.

Davies, E.; McConn-Palfreyman, W.; Parker, J.K.; Cameron, L.J.; Williams, J.M. Is Injury an Occupational Hazard for Horseracing Staff? Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19, 2054. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19042054

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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