Food Service Workers at Greatest Risk of Secondhand Smoke

April 15, 2004
More than half of U.S. food service workers are at risk from exposure to job-related secondhand smoke according to a study funded by the American Legacy Foundation.

In a ranking of 38 major occupations, food service workers ranked at the bottom of those workers protected by smoke-free workplace policies. White-collar workers, including teachers and healthcare workers, have the greatest protections from secondhand smoke on the job.

American Legacy Foundation President and CEO Dr. Cheryl Healton says this bottom-tier smoke-free policies ranking for bar and restaurant workers is an important and life-saving social justice issue.

"Clearly, we have seen progress in protecting white-collar workers from secondhand smoke, but we've done a poor job of protecting blue-collar and service workers," said Healton. "These same individuals are least likely to have access to quality healthcare and smoking cessation resources, so we're compounding the problem for this important segment of the workforce by having them work under conditions where they are not protected from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke."

Even among food service workers, considerable variation was seen in those with a smoke-free policy. Individuals whose job responsibilities involved direct interaction with customers reported significantly lower rates of smoke-free policies than those who were primarily involved in food preparation and cooking. Nearly 70 percent of kitchen workers had smoke-free policies, compared to 28 percent of waiters/waitresses and just 13 percent of bartenders.

Food service is the fourth-largest occupation in the United States, employing nearly 7 million workers, and is one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The new study, "Disparities in Smoke-free Workplace Policies Among Food Service Workers," also found that when smoke-free policies are implemented, compliance is overwhelmingly not a problem. Among the nearly 70 percent of U.S. workers with smoke-free policies, only 4 percent reported a violation. Food service workers, however, reported somewhat higher rates of noncompliance than other workers, thus exposing more of these individuals to the hazards of job-related secondhand smoke.

The study is published in the April issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and authored by Donald R. Shopland of the U.S. Public Health Service (retired), Ringgold, GA; Christy Anderson and David Burns of the University of California at San Diego, San Diego, CA; and Karen Gerlach of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ.

"Smoking was eliminated from all commercial airline flights in the United States more than a decade ago because of concern for the health of flight attendants," said Gerlach. "It's time we extend that same level of protection to the nearly 7 million food service workers in the country."

Currently, five states California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and New York have laws mandating that all places of employment, including restaurants and bars, be smoke-free. Massachusetts also passed similar legislation that is now awaiting the governor's signature. Florida, Idaho and Utah have also enacted statewide smoke-free laws, that extend to most restaurants and some bars.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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