Workplaces Play Key Role in War Against Terrorism

The workplace becomes the new frontline in the war on terrorism and occupational physicians are the generals.

With anthrax exposures reported in a hospital in New York, an office building in Florida and a postal facility in New Jersey, it's obvious that the American workplace has become a front line in the war against terrorism.

To help win this war, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) is calling upon federal, state, and local health authorities to recognize the workplace as an essential resource and an increasingly important component of the public health system.

"Recent events suggest the importance of rethinking and expanding our systems for protecting the public from potential health problems," said ACOEM President Dean A. Grove, M.D., at the College's recent State-of-the-Art Conference (SOTAC) in Seattle. "The deaths of postal workers in Washington, D.C., and newspaper workers in Florida clearly demonstrate that - in the event of health emergencies such as those we have recently experienced - our national and local health care systems need to strengthen, incorporate, collaborate with, and utilize the resources of America's workplaces. This is especially important because the attacks are occurring in and around those very workplaces."

The skills and experience OEM physicians provide in the prevention, detection, and management of individual disease and injury are an important part of America's integrated response to terrorism.

When workplaces are targeted, the health care system must be able to offer services to people where they work. One logical response to a mass event is strengthen the ability of the workplace itself to respond. For example, some worksites and occupational health clinics can be made available for community testing and inoculations. Occupational and environmental physicians, with training in epidemiology, toxicology, and clinical medicine, are well prepared to supplement the important work and needs of local public health authorities.

"Occupational health clinics and other worksite-oriented health care systems are a ready-made and economical system of providing medical care," said Grove. "These systems are not only first responders, but in many communities they are already part of the public health program. Recognizing them as an integral piece of the broader public health system can immeasurably improve our collective ability to protect vital workplaces and to respond to terrorist attacks on our health, safety, and environment."

More than 400 physicians attending ACOEM's conference in Seattle discussed an agenda for change and improvement that includes:

  • Encouraging public health authorities and occupational health professionals to work together to find new and creative ways to more formally coordinate available worksite resources into community disaster planning and response systems;
  • Developing ways to increase employers' understanding of what is needed for detection and response in the event of a terrorist attack or threat, and providing access to qualified and comprehensive management services for workplace health risks; and
  • Creating programs that educate employees about possible threats and teach them how to recognize health dangers.

As the largest medical society representing physicians with experience in diagnosing and treating occupational and environmental health disorders, ACOEM emphasized that public anxiety and concerns about potential exposure to biological or chemical weapons - or other acts of terrorism - can be lessened by the development of an integrated and responsive public health infrastructure and by the continuous dissemination of accurate information.

edited by Sandy Smith

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