Report: Occupational Death Rate for Health Care Workers Unknown

From severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to tuberculosis, the workplace hazards confronting the 9 million persons employed in the health care industry are well-known. Yet the occupational death rate for health care workers is not known.

According to a recent paper by Kent Sepkowitz and Leon Eisenberg, published in this month's Emerging Infectious Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal that analyzes disease trends, the death rate for other professions with high occupational risk, such as firefighters and police officers, has been relatively well-defined. Although federal law requires employers to notify OSHA of any occupational death within 8 hours, OSHA does not have a specific classification for health care workers.

The researchers point out that physicians and nurses can be placed into any of seven different occupational groups, such as "managerial and professional specialty," while nursing aides and orderlies are considered "service occupations."

"Because deaths from occupationally acquired diseases such as tuberculosis or hepatitis are not routinely captured in this system, the occupational risk of health care workers is underestimated," argue Sepkowitz and Eisenberg.

The authors estimate that 17 to 57 U.S. health care workers per million employed die each year from occupational infections and injuries. However, because of inadequacies in the reporting system, they assert that they can only make "an educated guess" about the number of deaths resulting from occupationally acquired infections.

In order to improve the protections offered to those who work in the health care industry, the authors recommend that "national organizations" take responsibility for tracking workplace deaths to health care workers. A nationwide tracking system, they argue would accomplish the following goals:

  • Determine the magnitude of the problem;
  • Inform future interventions, as happened with needlestick injuries;
  • Lead to appropriate financial compensation;
  • Raise awareness of the risks inherent in caring for others.

The full text of the article is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol11no07/pdfs/04-1038.pdf.

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