Every year we pause on April 28 for Workers Memorial Day to publicly remember the workers who died or suffered from exposures to hazards at work. While worker deaths in America are down, on average, even one death or one injury is still too many.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, promising every worker the right to a safe job. The workplace is ever-evolving, and in the 45 years since the act was signed into law, the number of workers has doubled, globalization has increased rapidly, climate change entered our vernacular, and even the structure of work as we know it has changed. While the challenges we face today may have changed since 1970, the commitment we have to protecting the health and safety of workers remains steadfast.
This year we witnessed firsthand that infectious disease knows no boundaries, especially in today’s increasingly mobile world. When the largest Ebola outbreak in history emerged in West Africa, myriads of workers faced unprecedented risks—from healthcare workers on the front lines caring for patients to mortuary workers, airline workers and even business travelers. NIOSH and its partners responded by developing information and guidance to help workers understand the risks of Ebola and keep them safe.
From the challenge of designing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers fighting Ebola in Africa’s searing heat to better understanding how the climate may influence worker health and safety, the intersection of environment and health has emerged as a challenge in many ways. While environmental protection and occupational health have had a close association for decades, older concerns about toxic chemicals and heavy metals have been extensively researched and documented. Global climate change has become one of the most visible environmental concerns of the 21st century, and its implications for worker health are less understood. Through research, we can better anticipate the impact on workers and implement effective prevention strategies.
Concern for the environment has also led to jobs that improve the environment, or “green jobs.” While this burgeoning industry is creating new opportunities for workers, it is important to make sure worker safety and health are not overlooked. For example, the NIOSH construction and Prevention through Design programs are collaborating on efforts to increase the use of building designs and construction practices that address safety and health hazards during all the stages of a building.
The oil and gas industry has one of the highest workplace fatality rates of any industry sector, spurred in part by a large number of new, inexperienced workers seeking to make a living in the booming field of hydraulic fracturing after perhaps their factory jobs were lost to a stuttering economy. To date, most attention on the health and safety implications of hydraulic fracturing has focused on the impacts on the environment, such as ground water contamination and safety risks, such as motor vehicles crashes. Little is known, however, about the occupational health hazards during fracturing operations. NIOSH is working closely with industry partners to assess chemical exposure risks to oil and gas workers by investigating the variety and magnitude of chemical exposure risks and routes of exposures that may be hazardous to workers.
Motor vehicle crashes aren’t just a problem in the oil and gas industry; motor vehicles are consistently the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United States across all industries. Over the past two decades we have seen more large trucks on the road traveling greater distances. Many crashes, 317,000 in 2012, involve these trucks. A 2014 NIOSH study found that as many as 1 in 3 truck drivers who died in crashes were not wearing a seatbelt. This research, a key component of NIOSH’s first-ever Vital Signs, was part of a larger effort to provide a comprehensive look at the health status, health and safety risk factors, and work practices of long-haul truck drivers in the U.S. As more men and women are projected to make a truck cab their workplace, it is important that we make their health and safety a priority.
Finally, we’ve seen a shift in the nature of work itself. The workplace is no longer confined to a factory or office from 9 to 5. The workplace of today may be one where work is conducted on-the-go—on mobile devices that all too often take our eyes and attention off of the road or on a part-time or temporary basis. Temporary workers make up a growing number of the workforce, and deserve the same level of protection from workplace hazards as permanent employees do. To that end, NIOSH and OSHA jointly published a document in 2014 that outlines best practices for temporary workers.
While NIOSH, along with our partners, is working to address the evolving challenges of the modern workplace, we ourselves continue to grow to meet the diverse needs of workers, our partners, and other stakeholders. This year, we created the Western States Division and the Spokane Mining Research Division. These new divisions provide a growing presence catering to the specific needs of industries and partners in the Western United States.
This Workers Memorial Day, while we pay homage to those who have been hurt or killed on the job, we must also rededicate ourselves to producing the knowledge and solutions that are vital to reducing risks of injury among the America’s workforce until the number of deaths are zero.
John Howard, M.D.
Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health