Digital Issue 6

Stroke: a workplace health and safety risk

  • By Stephanie Deller, Stroke Foundation

Stroke can affect anyone at any time, including those working in resources. Know your risk and learn the F.A.S.T. signs

Stroke is a devastating disease that attacks the brain and can change lives in an instant, and leave people with a wide range of physical and cognitive changes and disabilities. There is a common misconception stroke only affects older people; this is a falsehood. It can affect anyone at any age; it could even happen to you.

Alarmingly, around 25 percent of stroke survivors are of working age (under the age of 65). Knowing more about stroke will help you respond if you, a family member or a colleague is affected.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is how we describe blood supply to the brain suddenly being cut off. This can happen in two ways: blood can stop moving through the artery when it gets blocked by a clot, or when the artery bursts. Brain cells quickly die without the oxygen the blood supplies to the brain.

Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in Australia. It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer.

This article will explain some of the risk factors for stroke, how it can be prevented, how to recognise the F.A.S.T. (Face. Arms. Speech. Time) signs and what to do if you suspect a stroke.

First, read some inspiring stories from our members who have survived a stroke.

Johanna Barron-Perry MAusIMM, South Australia

52-year-old Jo suffered a stroke two years ago. A qualified mining engineer with 25 years’ industry experience, at the time Jo was working in Ballarat as Senior Inspector, Earth Resources Regulation with the Victorian Government.  

Jo was resting at home when she woke to find she had lost feeling in her mouth and tongue. Jo then felt a ‘flash’ down her side and was unable to move her left arm and leg. Jo was at home alone.

Suspecting she had suffered a stroke, Jo managed to call an ambulance. Paramedics confirmed her blood pressure was extremely high en route to the hospital. A brain scan confirmed Jo had suffered a stroke.

Jo’s life changed in an instant. The stroke impacted Jo’s movement on her left side; she was unable to continue working, which affected her both mentally and financially, and she lost her ability to taste and smell.

Over the past two years, Jo has come a long way in her recovery. Jo has regained her movement, and has been able to return to work, but still suffers intermittent fatigue, stiffness in her left hand and sometimes struggles with sensory overload in crowded places.

Since her stroke, Jo has made it her mission to raise awareness.

‘I never thought a stroke would happen to me. I was young; only 50 years old and thriving in my career,’ Jo said.

‘The consequences of stroke can be absolutely debilitating; physically and mentally. For me, high blood pressure and stress were main factors so I would encourage people to get their blood pressure checked.’

Martin Rimmer MAusIMM, Western Australia

51-year old Martin Rimmer, a metallurgist and minerals engineer, suffered a stroke in 2006 when he was just 36 years old.

Martin experienced strong vertigo, blacked out and ended up on the floor. He felt paralysed but could move his toes and feet, his speech was slurred and he was vomiting.

Martin was taken to hospital, but a cause was not determined. He was discharged and was given a wheelchair to take home. Martin had to crawl from the car to his house and his condition did not improve.

The next morning, Martin was readmitted to hospital for further tests, where a brain scan confirmed he had suffered a stroke. Doctors were not sure Martin would survive.

Martin was flown to Perth for treatment the next evening. He had a craniectomy where a part of his back skull was removed to reduce the pressure on his brain.

Martin was in hospital for five weeks before he was discharged to Kalgoorlie for rehabilitation. After four months, Martin returned to part-time work as an engineer. It was three years before Martin returned to full-time work. Martin now has a slight limp and the sensation on his right side is altered, but he considers himself very lucky.

‘With a positive mindset, you can overcome anything. I see myself as a survivor and not a victim,’ Martin said.

‘I’m lucky to have recovered well enough to return to the things I love doing, which I know is not the case for everyone.

‘I would encourage people to be aware of the FA.S.T. (Face. Arms. Speech. Time) signs of stroke; the quicker you get to hospital and receive medical treatment, the better your chances are of a good recovery.’

Andrea Williams, Western Australia

In 2018, Kalgoorlie environmental scientist Andrea Williams suffered a stroke after being bitten by a King Brown snake while undertaking a flora survey. Andrea was 51 and working as part of a small team, but was working alone at the time of the bite.

She set off her Emergency Positioning Device, which alerted emergency services, and was then found by her husband, who drove her through bush to a road to meet the ambulance. It was four hours from being bitten to reaching the small rural hospital, which did not stock antivenins, so she did not receive any until it arrived by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) several hours later.

The snake bite caused Andrea’s organs to shut down. By the time she arrived in Perth (flown via RFDS) she was comatose and required renal dialysis. The following day she was still non-responsive and an MRI revealed a stroke caused by blood clots. She required surgery to remove the clots and a craniotomy and shunt to release pressure on her brain.

Andrea spent 53 days in a coma where it was uncertain if she would survive.

Incredibly, Andrea pulled through and is continuing her rehabilitation. She is now living with a number of impacts from her stroke, including short term memory loss, spatial disorientation, loss of taste and smell,residual left sided weakness and restricted vision to her left side.

Though Andrea’s stroke experience resulted from unique circumstances, she is still eager to raise awareness of the fact that stroke can happen to anyone at any age.

‘I have come across a number of young people who have suffered stroke; it can happen to anybody,” Andrea said.

‘I am still learning about how my stroke has affected me, physically and mentally, but I have worked hard at my rehabilitation and I am lucky to be here, talking today.

‘I hope my experience emphasises the importance of accessing timely treatment.’

Are you at risk?

It’s important to know that stroke can happen to anyone of any age. Men are also at greater risk of stroke and as people get older, their risk increases.

There are many causes or risk factors; some are controllable, and some are less so.

Some of the causes within our control include high blood pressure, a family history of stroke, being overweight, smoking, high cholesterol, a high intake of alcohol and diabetes.

High blood pressure is a particularly strong risk factor for stroke. High blood pressure has no symptoms and so the only way to find out if the blood pressure is high is to get it measured.

Another risk factor is an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation (AF). Atrial fibrillation allows clots to form in the heart that can then migrate to the brain and cause stroke. Atrial fibrillation can be difficult to detect as it can come and go, but if recognised, adequate treatment with blood thinners (anticoagulants) in appropriate patients can substantially reduce the risk of stroke. Like high blood pressure, the best way to know if you have AF is to have a health check with your doctor.

Prevention

While there are a number of risk factors for stroke, it’s also important to know that more than 80 per cent of strokes can be prevented.

To reduce your risk of stroke: eat well, keep a healthy weight, don’t smoke, keep blood pressure down, exercise regularly, and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Ask your GP what your blood pressure numbers are (the higher number should be <140 for most people). If you notice an irregular heartbeat see your GP as atrial fibrillation may require blood thinners to reduce the risk of stroke.

The F.A.S.T. (Face. Arms. Speech. Time.) signs of stroke

Stroke is always a time-critical medical emergency and it is crucial people get to hospital quickly for treatment.

The first step in accessing timely treatment for stroke is recognising the most common signs.

Stroke Foundation Chief Executive Officer Sharon McGowan urged readers to learn the F.A.S.T. (Face. Arms. Speech. Time) signs of stroke and to call triple zero (000) straight away.

‘When a stroke strikes, it kills up to 1.9 million brain cells every minute, but early treatment can stop this damage,’ Ms McGowan says.

‘The quicker you get to hospital, the better chance you have of avoiding death or disability. Time saved is brain saved.

‘Learn the F.A.S.T. message and share it with your friends, family and colleagues; it could save a life.’

The F.A.S.T. test is a simple way everyone can learn and remember the signs of stroke:

  • Face: Check their face. Has their mouth drooped?
  • Arms: Can they lift both arms?
  • Speech: Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you?
  • Time is critical. If you see any of these signs call triple zero (000) straight away.

Call to action

One in four of us will experience a stroke in our lifetime. Yet stroke can be prevented, it can be treated and it can be beaten. By controlling your risk factors, learning the F.A.S.T. signs of stroke and calling triple zero (000) at the first sign, you can make a difference and help save your or another’s life.

The Stroke Foundation is a national charity that partners with the community to prevent stroke, save lives and enhance recovery. We do this through raising awareness, facilitating research and supporting stroke survivors. For more information about stroke and resources available to you, visit the Stroke Foundation website.

Online StrokeSafe presentations are also available for workplaces and community groups. Book here.

You can also donate to Stroke Foundation to help its mission to prevent stroke, save lives and enhance recovery.

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