The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 2 million workers die each year from a wide range of work-related diseases. Moreover, ILO estimates that 160 million cases of non-fatal work-related diseases occur each year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 207,500 workers experienced non-fatal occupational diseases in 2011.
These staggering numbers affect workers in a plethora of working environments. Workers often incorrectly perceive risks when the consequences are potentially life-changing. Clearly the phrase “It won’t happen to me” needs to be expelled.
The Italian physician and teacher Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the “father of occupational medicine,” wrote his definitive text, De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers), by organizing previous knowledge and collecting personal observations. It was the world’s first comprehensive work on occupational diseases, outlining health hazards associated with exposure to chemicals, dust, metals, repetitive/violent motion, awkward posture and other disease-causative agents encountered by workers in some 50 professions.
In each chapter, Ramazzini describes the nature of the disease and its relation to work. He explains how chemical and physical agents, as well as ergonomic hazards, can cause disease. An excerpt from De Morbis Artificum Diatriba provides an example:
“Nowadays women sit to weave, but in such a posture that they somehow look as though they were standing. This kind of work is certainly very fatiguing, for the whole body is tasked, both hands, arms, feet, and back, so that every part of the body at once shares in the work…Now an occupation so fatiguing naturally has its drawbacks, especially for women, for if pregnant they easily miscarry and expel the fetus prematurely and in consequence incur many ailments later on. Therefore in work so taxing moderation would be the best safeguard against these maladies, for men and women alike; for the common maxim “Nothing to excess” is one that I excessively approve.”
Don't Put Accidents Above Disease
Three hundred years later, we are still trying to figure out ways to prevent commonly occurring disease states, such as lung and skin complaints, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational cancers. Millions of people around the world are sitting at their desk right now with an incorrect posture and are potentially causing serious damage to their health. The diseases could be lower back pain or carpal tunnel for example, but either way serious life-altering issues could arise. The effects might not be acute but over time, the possibility grows.
Far before Ramazzini’s time, in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder described mercury poisoning as a disease of slaves working in mines contaminated by mercury vapor. He created a facemask made from animal bladder to protect workers from exposure to dust and lead fumes. Even 2,000 years ago, the health effects of certain chemicals and the risk of occupational disease exposure was recognized.
Occupational diseases aren’t “out of the ordinary.” The ILO reported that approximately 86 percent of all work-related accident and disease deaths are results of work-related diseases. Which begs the question, “Why are accidents put above diseases in many situations?” One potential reason for this is the time span of some disease onset. Some diseases might not arise for 20 years or more, whereas when an accident occurs, it’s sudden. It’s also important to note that not everyone who is exposed will develop a disease. This is an excellent reason why employers should keep records for 30 years or more.
History is filled with cases of occupational diseases; this is not a new emergence in the world. Many hazards have changed over time, but possibilities of long-term health effects of exposures remain prevalent. With proper controls and better awareness, the number of occupational diseases that occur annually should diminish.
Langdon Dement, AEP, GSP, is a safety and health specialist with the Workplace Health and Safety division of UL (Underwriters Laboratories), with a focus on industrial hygiene, patient handling ergonomics and job hazard analysis. His subject matter expertise aids in developing technical content for occupational health and safety training courses and software solutions. He holds an M.S. in occupational safety and health with an emphasis in industrial hygiene from Murray State University and a B.S. in biology from Harding University.