CDC: Reports Illustrate the Importance of Reducing Workplace Injury

Dr. Kathleen Rest, acting director of NIOSH, releases three reports in honor of Workers Memorial Day that offer insights into protecting workers from serious workplace hazards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) chose to honor those workers eulogized at this year''s Workers Memorial Day ceremonies around the country by protecting the living.

Kathleen Rest, acting director of NIOSH, held a teleconference yesterday to release three reports illustrating the importance of reducing workplace injury. The reports are published in today''s MMWR, which is dedicated to worker health and safety.

"In the 33 years since NIOSH came into being, this nation has really made great progress in protecting the health and safety of workers," said Rest. "Through the efforts of workers, employers, unions, government agencies and safety and health professionals, both the number and the rate of fatal workplace injuries has really decreased over the past two decades."

Rest mentioned that one of NIOSH''s most recent reports analyzed long-term data, finding that the average annual rate for fatal worker injuries declined 42 percent between 1980 and 1995, and the number of fatal injuries declined 28 percent during that same time period.

"Despite these achievements and accomplishments, a lot remains to be done," continued Rest. "Men and women in this country still suffer preventable work-related injuries and illnesses on a daily basis."

According to Rest, on average, 16 workers die from a job-related injury every day. Another 9,000 suffer disabling injuries on the job, and approximately 137 workers die from occupational illnesses. "So, clearly," said Rest, "we still need to make progress on many fronts."

Every year Worker Memorial Day reminds workers, employers and safety professionals of the need to continue their efforts to promote occupational health and safety, said Rest. "It is an occasion to remember workers who died in workplace catastrophes in the past year, such as the World Trade Center attack, or smaller, singular tragedies that happen on a daily basis," she said. "To remember workers that have suffered illnesses because of exposures to hazardous substances at work, or who''ve been injured as a result of hazardous workplace conditions."

The three articles in this week''s issue of MMWR help illustrate the challenges and the accomplishments of safety and health research as an essential part of the United State''s occupational safety and health mission.

One report, authored by Dr. Richard Kanwal, describes a study in which workers involved in mixing and packaging operations at a microwave popcorn packaging plant in Jasper, Mo., owned by Gilster-Mary Lee Corp., were found to be at potential risk of obstructive lung disease, a very serious lung disease. In fact, four of the workers are awaiting lung transplants.

Research is continuing in efforts to identify the exact cause of the disease, which appears to be linked with high exposures to vapors from flavoring, and to determine if cases also are occurring among workers at other popcorn plants. NIOSH is now working with the company, with workers with the state health department to determine the scope of the risk and to evaluate protection measures.

"The company has taken extensive measures to improve ventilation and do certain engineering controls with the process, so that exposures are decreased, and they have been decreased by several orders of magnitude," said Kanwal. "Respirators are still being made available to workers, and a handful of workers do use the respirators."

Rest said the study illustrates the value of research in identifying previously unsuspected occupational illnesses, said Rest, and find better ways to protect these workers.

A second report describes NIOSH''s investigation of a respiratory illness at TRW Inc.''s brake manufacturing facility in Mount Vernon, Ohio. In January 2001, three machinists at an automobile parts manufacturing facility were hospitalized with a respiratory illness called hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

NIOSH investigators found that additional workers were experiencing similar illnesses at the same facility and that the illnesses were likely related to occupational exposure to the metalworking fluids used in this facility. Similar illnesses have been documented among workers in other machining plants in the U.S. and Canada.

Report author Dr. Douglas Trout said that no new newly symptomatic TRW workers have been identified since April of 2001, but added, "Some people have had fairly severe illnesses and are still symptomatic from those illnesses, being followed by their physicians and have not yet returned to work."

Rest said the investigation highlights the need for research to better understand and prevent work-related illnesses that may affect very large numbers of workers because of the hazard exists in large numbers of workplaces.

Dr. Diana Bensyl, in a third report, describes NIOSH research to protect commercial pilots in Alaska, whose risk of fatal injury has surpassed that of fishermen and loggers in that state. During 19901999, aircraft crashes in Alaska caused 107 deaths among workers classified as civilian pilots. This is equivalent to 410/100,000 pilots annually; approximately 100 times the mortality rate for all U.S. workers.

In response, CDC conducted a study to determine factors associated with pilot fatalities in work-related aviation crashes in Alaska. Flights that crashed in instrument weather conditions (i.e., poor visibility) were more likely to be fatal than crashes occurring in conditions with better visibility. The estimated odds of pilot death were also higher when the crash occurred away from an airport, in darkness or involved a post-crash fire.

This research points to the ongoing need to find ways to protect workers in high-risk occupations and industries, and in occupations with unique working conditions. Researchers determined additional pilot training and company policies that discourage flying in poor weather conditions might help decrease pilot fatalities. The use of a shoulder restraint also showed a protective effect.

Despite gains made in the past with regards to occupational safety and health, a whole new crop of concerns is waiting on the horizon, said Rest. "There are many new challenges related to the rapidly-changing nature and organization of work that we''ll have to be poised to address, and clearly, there are new threats as evidenced by the tragic events of last fall, which really highlighted the new and catastrophic risks posed to emergency responders and other workers from acts of terrorism," she added.

She also noted there is still a variety of persistent hazards that have been around for decades that continue to need attention, including lead exposure, noise, falls, silica and a variety of other traditional hazards.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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