Use It or Lose It: NIOSH’s Howard Addresses Aging Work Force Issues

At the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals (AHMP) National Conference in Atlanta, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard, M.D., discussed how the aging work force and employee demographic shifts will affect safety and productivity in the future. EHS Today caught up with Howard after the conference on Sept. 15 to learn more about the aging work force, nanotechnology, the agency’s priorities and more.

In his presentation at the AHMP conference, Howard outlined anticipated work force changes in the coming years, including age-related health concerns; generational attitudes; skills deficits in younger workers; global competition for workers; innovative employee arrangements; “encore” careers for retired workers; age-related occupational health and safety challenges; and more. (To learn more about these issues, read “The Future of Work and the Aging Work Force.”)

During the interview with EHS Today, Howard discussed new research surrounding another aging work force issue: the concept of mental retirement. The researched paper titled “Mental Retirement,”published in the Winter 2010 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, concluded, “Early retirement has a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s that is both quantitatively important and causal.” The research also indicated that the reversal of the early retirement trend in America is “good news for the standard of living of elderly Americans.”

Howard explained that this research gives an empirical basis to the phrase “use it or lose it.”

“The theory everyone has about keeping the mind active to stave off cognitive limitation actually has some truth to it,” he explained. “[The study] gives more support for the idea of not going into retirement like the old 20th century way of thinking, where you just stop doing everything.”

Helping the Work Force Age Gracefully

“We’re seeing a lot more evidence-based research coming out of funding for aging issues in the United States,” Howard said. “No matter where I go and present the topic, it resonates with people. People are understanding not only the occupational safety and health limitations associated with aging, but also larger work force issues.”

To address the challenges brought on by the aging work force, Howard said that employers should know the demographics of their worker – they may employ more chronologically gifted employees than they think – and also should examine all jobs and work stations to determine which ones may put older workers at risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

In addition to aging, Howard said that NIOSH also is interested in the “war to work” issue, which surrounds the challenges of soldiers returning from service with physical problems, such as amputations, trauma and internal organ damage, and transitioning back into the civilian work force. Howard will participate in the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy in Atlanta this November to discuss this issue and how it may affect work in the future.

High Stakes for Nanotechnology

Howard also told EHS Today that NIOSH continues to consider nanotechnology research “extremely important.”

“We have to do this research very quickly now and in the beginning of this emerging technology,” he said. “We can’t do it towards the middle or end, as it was with asbestos.”

Howard stressed that NIOSH is dedicated to putting in the money and research required to determine nanotechnology risks and has made strides this year in nanotoxicology. NIOSH also recently entered into an interagency agreement with OSHA on nanotechnology.

“We want to prevent an entire work force from suffering the same kind of issues as the asbestos work force suffered in the 20th century,” he said. “That’s our motivation.”

The Year in Review

It’s been 1 year since Howard was reappointed to NIOSH Director after serving his previous term from 2002-2008. He said this past year has been an exciting time for two reasons – the support NIOSH has received from the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, and the agency’s work surrounding the Gulf oil spill.

According to Howard, Frieden “has a very positive, very affirmative attitude” about occupational safety and health and particularly supports NIOSH’s efforts to eliminate black lung disease. “That’s just a tremendous booth for our work both in our mining program and our lung disease program,” said Howard.

In its work related to the BP oil spill, NIOSH has conducted ongoing health hazard evaluations and provided guidance to help protect cleanup and recovery workers. Currently, NIOSH is conducting animal toxicity studies to look at the acute effects of dispersant on animals.

“NIOSH has done such terrific work and it’s just a real pleasure and privilege for me to be working with such professionals,” he said.

Finally, Howard praised the working relationship among NIOSH, OSHA and MSHA.

“The relationship that we have now with OSHA and MSHA, who are sister partners in our statute, just couldn’t be more positive,” said Howard. “We have tremendous support from [OSHA Administrator] David Michaels and [MSHA Administrator] Joe Main. They are much more involved in our work, they rely on our work and they ask us to contribute more. It’s just a tremendously positive relationship.”

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