AIHce: NIOSH Director Says Genetic Research, New Work Practices Pose Challenges

"The future ain't what it used to be," declared John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Howard explained he was quoting "the famous American philosopher" Yogi Berra, as he began his May 13 keynote address at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo, held this week in Dallas.

Making use of the theme of this year's conference, "Navigating Uncharted Territory," the NIOSH director identified eight challenges confronting occupational health and safety professionals:

  • The transformation of how work is organized. For example, U.S. workers are now laboring longer than ever before, and have reduced job security. These and other new factors may expose employees to a host of "intangible" hazards such as workplace stress, violence and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
  • Integrating health promotion with more traditional health protection strategies. Howard argued that research is effacing the boundary between occupational and non-occupational health. For example, it now appears that obesity increases by 200 percent the risk of suffering an MSD, so one of the most effective elements in an ergonomics program may be to develop a weight control strategy for workers.
  • Challenges and opportunities posed by breakthroughs in genetic research. Genetic information can be used to protect workers with known vulnerabilities to specific workplace hazards. But workers have legitimate concerns about medical privacy and the use employers can make of this information. The issues raised by the medical use of genetic information "represents uncharted scientific, ethical, legal, and employment relations territory," Howard asserted. Nevertheless, Howard told his audience that the use of this genetic information "should be a field of interest for you," because the scientific use of genetics will only grow in the 21st century.
  • The changing demographic character of the U.S. workforce. The increasing number of the very young and the very old, immigrant and non-English speakers, and female workers means altered vulnerabilities to occupational risk factors.
  • Persistence of traditional workplace hazards. Despite existing knowledge about effective control strategies, injury and fatality rates are declining slowly; to address this problem Howard called for more research into effective communication strategies.
  • Making standards, guidance and other information relevant to small and medium-sized employers.
  • The threats of communicable diseases. Howard asserted that occupational health and safety professionals have traditionally neglected these diseases, but should now pay attention to the growth in the AIDs pandemic, plus SARS and even influenza.
  • The threats of terrorism in the workplace. "We must not forget that the attacks of 9/11 were on workplaces," said Howard. Safety and health professionals must now not only address threats in the workplace, but hazards to the workplace.
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