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As Olympic fever takes hold, we would like to take the opportunity to highlight research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that relates directly or indirectly to the athletes or their events. NIOSH has the responsibility of conducting research and making recommendations to prevent work-related injuries and illnesses. Although Olympic competition differs from employment (defined as work performed for hire or pay), the contests often involve stresses and hazards similar to those that working men and women can encounter on the job. As we salute America’s world-class champions, we and our diverse partners have the opportunity to remind the public of the work we do to make everyday work safe for all workers.
The prevalence of Zika in Brazil has concerned many athletes. You may have heard about Zika virus in the news. Zika outbreaks are happening in many countries, including Brazil. Zika virus is primarily spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes. It can also be transmitted through sex with an infected person. These mosquitoes are aggressive daytime biters. They can also bite at night. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). However, many people infected with Zika virus won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms. Additionally, Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects such as microcephaly. Workers at the Olympics conducting outdoor activities may be at the greatest risk of exposure to Zika virus. There is no vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection, and there is no specific treatment for people who become infected.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends Olympians and all Olympic workers, including volunteers, take the actions listed below while in Rio. For more information on how Olympians and all Olympic workers, including volunteers, can protect themselves in Rio, visit the NIOSH Zika topic page, the CDC Zika website, and the CDC travel notice for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
- Use insect repellents with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered active ingredient, such as: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol to prevent mosquito bites.
- Get rid of sources of standing water (for example, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) whenever possible to reduce or eliminate areas where mosquitoes can lay eggs.
- Even in warm weather, wear lightweight, loose fitting clothing that covers hands, arms, legs, and other exposed skin as much as possible.
- Protect yourself and others during sex. Both men and women can transmit Zika sexually, even if they don’t have symptoms.
- If you have symptoms of Zika, seek medical attention promptly. If you have left Rio, be sure to tell your healthcare provider where you have recently traveled.
Circadian Rhythms/Work Life Balance
As the athletes travel across time zones, it is important that ample time is allowed for their bodies to adjust to the time change. NIOSH offered suggestions for employers to help workers adjust to the Daylight Saving times change in a recent blog. Changes in the body’s circadian rhythms is addressed in NIOSH research on shift work and long hours. See the blog, A Hard Day’s Night: Training Provides Nurses with Strategies for Shift Work and Long Work Hours. Workers face issues related to meeting the demands of work, maintaining their health, and responding to needs outside of work that have a direct effect on their overall safety, health, and well-being. Similarly, Olympic athletes may need to balance work, training, and family obligations as well as the stress of competing at the Olympic level. Support for plenty of rest should be given to the athletes as they juggle these demands and transition across time zones. In the workplace, employers should consider these needs concurrently and modify work practices to reduce fatigue and promote work-life balance. See the NIOSH Total Worker Health® and Work Organization and Stress-Related Disorders websites for more information.
Regardless of the venue, the summer Olympics typically have one thing in common – the heat. Athletes must take precautions to prevent heat-related illness. Workers at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments such as firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, factory workers, and others. For information on preventing heat-related illness, see the NIOSH Heat Stress topic page.
Athletes competing in fencing and shooting events all wear eye protection. Swimmers wear goggles, some basketball players wear protective eye wear, and many athletes wear sunglasses. Every day, about 2,000 US workers receive medical treatment because of eye injuries sustained at work. The most common causes of these injuries include: small particles or objects striking the eye, blunt force trauma, chemical burns, and thermal burns. Some workers are at an additional risk of exposure to infectious disease transmissible through the mucous membranes of the eye as a result of exposure to droplets of blood and other body fluids or other contact. Eye safety and health is also of special concern to older workers. Read the related blog post for more information on protecting workers’ eyes.
Safety and Health for Those Working with Horses
There are six equestrian events at the Olympics. NIOSH research presented in the document An Overview of Safety and Health for Workers in the Horse-Racing Industry finds that that between the years 1998 and 2006 an estimate of more than 14,000 non-fatal occupational injuries associated with the horse-racing industry were treated in US hospital emergency rooms. Additionally, 79 deaths occurred to those working in this industry between 1992 and 2006. Among these deaths, 67% occurred to non-jockey personnel (i.e., trainers, grooms, exercise riders, etc.). These numbers are almost certainly underestimates of the true numbers due to inconsistent or lacking reporting systems. Included in the prevention suggestions in the document are that personal protective equipment such as helmets and vests, worn by all workers in close proximity to horses, could help to reduce the severity of injuries and the number of deaths. See also Safety and Health in the Horse-Racing Industry and Respiratory Hazards for Latino Horse Farm Workers.
Like professional athletes, many workers are expected to do demanding physical tasks day after day while on the job. With this comes the risk of injury. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repeated tasks. In many sports we hear of overuse issues affecting athletes from tennis elbow to tendonitis. NIOSH has a broad research program directed at eliminating or reducing work-related musculoskeletal disorders. NIOSH recommends a comprehensive workplace ergonomics program to best protect workers.
While weight lifting may be an Olympic event, in the workplace, there are guidelines as to how much weight workers are allowed to lift. The NIOSH lifting equation was designed to help reduce the physical stress associated with manual lifting. Additionally, NIOSH research found no evidence that back belts reduce back injury or back pain for retail workers who lift or move merchandise. In the healthcare industry, lifting and moving patients contribute to a high rate of musculoskeletal disorders. NIOSH research such as that described in Safe Lifting and Movement of Nursing Home Residents shows that using mechanical devices to assist with lifting reduces injuries. For more information, see the NIOSH website on Safe Patient Handling and Movement.
Sexual Dysfunction Among Cyclists
Over 40,000 workers in public safety occupations ride bicycles as part of their job. NIOSH has studied police bicycle officers where genital numbness, erectile dysfunction, and impotence were a concern. Over 25% of the body weight is supported where the groin contacts the bicycle saddle (seat) nose and increases as the cyclist leans forward in more aerodynamic positions. This can contribute to the sexual and reproductive health effects that have been reported with bicycling. NIOSH research found that the traditional sport/racing saddle was associated with more than two times the pressure in the perineal region than the saddles without a protruding nose. Using a no-nose saddle resulted in a 66% reduction in saddle contact pressure in the perineal region, a significant improvement in penis tactile sensation, and a significant improvement in erectile function. We don’t know how our no-nose saddle findings may apply to the circumstances of competitive cycling, or to elite athletes, as we have not studied this. However, we have made our recommendations for police officers’ job-related cycling widely available, and we encourage competitive cyclists, their sponsors, and bicycle manufacturers to be aware of them. For more information see No-nose Saddles for Preventing Genital Numbness and Sexual Dysfunction in Occupational Bicycling and Using No-nose (Noseless) Bicycle Saddles to Prevent Genital Numbness and Sexual Dysfunction.
While we know that American football is not an Olympic sport, NIOSH research on National Football League (NFL) players may be of interest to those athletes participating in other sports such as soccer and boxing where concussions are a concern. Especially given that some have reported that soccer is the sport with the highest concussion risk for females (Sports Concussion Institute). The NIOSH study, Neurodegenerative causes of death among retired National Football League players, found that while NFL players on average live longer than the average American male, the overall risk of death associated with neurodegenerative disorders was three times higher among the study group than the general US population. The risk for two major subcategories, Alzheimer disease and ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), was four times higher for the NFL players. The research showed that more neurodegenerative deaths were observed among players in “speed” positions compared with players in “non-speed” positions. See the blog, Brain Injury in the NFL. For comprehensive advice on how to recognize, respond to, and minimize the risk of concussion or other serious brain injury, see the CDC Heads Up program oriented toward youth sports.
Needle Stick Injury/Bloodborne Pathogens
The Olympic drug testing program has been in the news lately. According to The International Olympic Committee: Anti-Doping Rules, drug testing can include blood samples. Workers who deal with testing athletes should follow Universal Precautions for Preventing the Transmission of Bloodborne Infections. NIOSH has comprehensive research and prevention on preventing needlesticks and sharps injuries including the Stop Sticks Campaign.
NIOSH supports our athletes as they “Go for the Gold” in Brazil and will continue our research to protect American workers—the everyday heroes who keep America working.
Julie Tisdale Pardi, MA, is the NIOSH Science Blog Coordinator.