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The Importance of Occupational Safety and Health: Making for a “Super” Workplace

Categories: Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing, Mining, Oil and Gas, Personal Protective Equipment, Sports and Entertainment, Training

Graphic by Stephen R. Leonard

There’s just something about superhero movie summer releases that gets us here at NIOSH excited about safety. This summer the source of our inspiration came from the Man of Steel© movie. In the film, pre-Superman Clark Kent is working as a commercial fisherman (a hazardous job if you’re not a man of steel). He risks exposing his amazing abilities when he swoops in to save the workers on a nearby oil rig who are in great danger as the rig implodes around them.

The scene is reminiscent of Action Comics© issue #3, the original Superman comic book series dating all the way back to 1938. In Action Comics #3, “Superman Battles Death Underground“, (issued 75 years ago this month) Superman is in the right place at the right time to save a coal miner, as well as his rescue crew, from an unsafe mine filled with toxic gas. We see instances such as these riddled throughout comic books and superhero movies. There’s always a hero around to save the day.

Unfortunately, in real life we can’t rely on the Superman – but we can rely on the many super men and women in the occupational health and safety field who are always striving to improve working conditions to keep workers out of harm’s way long before they need saving. When it comes to research, regulations, and recommendations for improving workplace safety, a lot has changed since 1938.

The Mining Industry

Today’s miners have many advantages over those depicted in the 1938 comic. Below we’ve highlighted some key mine safety and health advancements. While much progress has been made in preventing explosion disasters in coal mines, we still need to be vigilant. NIOSH conducts research to identify and then mitigate the causes of underground coal mine explosions. Research strategies include minimizing methane concentrations and coal dust accumulations and applying proper dispersible rock dust in sufficient quality at all locations. A recent product NIOSH developed is the Coal Dust Explosibility Meter, which gives a real-time reading of the explosibility of mine dust so operators can maintain adequate levels of incombustible content (rock dust) to prevent propagating coal dust explosions.
NIOSH publications in this area include:
When a mine disaster such as an explosion or fire does occur, we now know the importance of certified safety equipment. To protect miners from the possibility of a toxic environment, NIOSH approves closed circuit escape respirators (CCER). To be assured of respiratory protection, workers must understand the meaning of breathing gas capacity when concerning CCERs that are jointly approved by NIOSH and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The new NIOSH/MSHA standards for this type of respirator have upgraded the performance and design requirements and established an oxygen capacity level for each CCER so that a purchaser can know how much oxygen it contains. Click on these NIOSH publications for more information about breathing gas capacity and CCERs:

The mine environments in the virtual reality training have a high degree of realism, including simulations of smoke and other atmospheric conditions.

NIOSH-approved respiratory protection is a key element to protect miners from toxic environments – but to react properly in dangerous situations, training and preparation is essential. For this purpose, the use of virtual environments for training continues to grow. The proper application of these technologies offers many potential advantages over traditional training methods, such as letting the trainee enter an environment that is impossible to visit in the real world, observe a scene from different points of view, or allowing an inexperienced person to operate machinery.

One of the goals of the NIOSH work in virtual reality is to determine the best ways to use these technologies for training and assessing the skills of mine emergency responders. In this case, responders include specially trained individuals (mine rescue or fire brigade team members), mine managers and mineworkers called upon to respond to an emergency.

To help meet this goal, NIOSH has built the Mine Rescue and Escape Training laboratory (MRET) at its Pittsburgh facility. The MRET includes a unique state-of-the-art 360° cylindrical projection system that uses stereoscopic 3D technology to enhance the immersion and experience of the users. It has the capability of putting an entire group into a virtual environment that they can interact with, providing an intuitive training experience. An adjacent 50° curved display acts as a classroom environment for instructor driven sessions and as a post-simulation debriefing environment following the sessions run in the 360° environment.

The Oil and Gas Extraction Industry

But mining is not the only industry where occupational safety has become a priority. What about those oil rig workers that Superman saved in the movie? When a super hero is not around, a strategic safety program, including proper training for workers, is vital. Having what you need to know laid out in an organized, simple format in front of you is a great way to make sure every step is covered in that learning process. That’s why in 2011 NIOSH put together a packet of Rig Check inspection forms to be used as a training tool for short service employees, who may not be familiar with the tools and equipment found on oil and gas rigs.

Because there are different roles in the complex oil rig environment, NIOSH has also produced two videos focusing on safety tips for those involved in rig moves, which can be one of the most dangerous parts of an oil rig operation.

Move It! Rig Move Safety for Roughnecks

One important safety precaution is as simple as wearing a seatbelt when travelling from rig to rig. Seatbelt use in this industry is low, while motor vehicle fatality rates are 8.5 that for all U.S. workers. You can learn more about NIOSH occupational safety and health efforts in the oil and gas industry by visiting the NIOSH Oil and Gas Program Portfolio.

The Commercial Fishing Industry

At the time that Clark Kent saved the oil rig workers, he was involved in an industry where safety is a high priority – the commercial fishing industry. Did you know that falling overboard is the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen nationwide? This may not be a concern for Superman, but for all the humans on board these ships, this is a problem that required some research.

From 2000 to 2010, 182 fishermen died from falls overboard, none of which were wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs). Researchers from the NIOSH Alaska Pacific Office conducted a study with about 200 commercial fishermen who were asked to evaluate one of four personal flotation devices (PFDs) while working on deck. The goal was to identify wearable PFDs. By identifying PDFs that are wearable during the workday, and therefore changing the culture and attitude around wearing them, future deaths of this kind can be prevented. Putting research into practice, individual fishermen and fishing companies are changing safety policies based on research performed by the NIOSH Commercial Fishing Safety Program. For example, the Alaska Scallop Association has established a 100% PFD policy while on deck for its member boats. Certain fishing vessels of the Mariner fleet that participated in the PFD study instituted a PFD policy, purchasing the safety equipment for all crewmembers to wear while working on deck. Check out the recommendations and results from this study on the NIOSH Commercial Fishing Topic Page.

A lot has certainly changed in the 75 years that Superman has been saving lives. In that time we have better learned how to be our own heroes through safe workplace practices. Through practical research, we can work with occupational safety and health professionals in every industry to ensure a safe workplace.

Jaclyn Krah, MA; Richard L. Unger

 Ms. Krah is a Health Communication Specialist in the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.

 Mr. Unger is a Civil Engineer and Computer Scientist in the NIOSH Office of Mine Safety and Health Research.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. August 7, 2013 at 10:21 am ET  -   Mark

    Kudos for NIOSH’s ongoing efforts to connect workplace health and safety with popular culture.

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  2. August 7, 2013 at 4:32 pm ET  -   MCP

    For more information on workplace health and safety as it relates to mining, this recent article highlights advancements in the field: A Theory of Incidents: You are your brother and your sister’s keeper
    http://www.workplacesafetynorth.ca/news/news-post/theory-incidents-you-are-your-brother-and-sister%E2%80%99s-keeper

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  3. August 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm ET  -   LKITAsia

    The Oil and Gas exploration Job, Mining are hazardous work activities. NIOSH standard is encapsulated in company ‘Goal Zero’ principle which stands for ‘no harm to people and protect the environment’. The standard also places a strong emphasis on employee health and well-being.

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  4. August 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm ET  -   Robert Allen

    Safety in the workplace is very important, there have been many improvements recently.

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  5. January 10, 2014 at 11:23 am ET  -   mark

    i read another blog whcich was goin on about the hazards of working at a theatre, this blog really makes that one look small and puts it into perspective

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  6. March 11, 2014 at 8:56 am ET  -   Jeffry W

    Safety in the workplace is as it should be preeminent. I personally have seen some of the work accident while working on a construction project of a boiler in a textile mill, ranging from small up to the worst. Such as where a person broke his finger hit a chainsaw, there is also a fall from a height and some are affected by iron tool, such as a large screwdriver or pliers. This article is certainly very well to remind us all of the importance of complying with all safety regulations.

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  7. March 28, 2014 at 7:15 pm ET  -   william

    I am very glad that there is a shift in focus to workplace safety. I feel like in so many industries there is a stigma that people should cut corners to be more productive despite the safety issues it causes. I have seen many videos online of people messing up and injuring themselves or others just to be more productive. Hopefully the trend of being safety conscious and not being macho continues to take hold!

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