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NIOSH: Research, Education Bolster Workplace Safety

In recognition of Workers' Memorial Day this April 28, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard, M.D., took the opportunity to highlight some of the challenges the agency is tackling to help prevent work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths.

“Although much progress has been made since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, more remains to be accomplished,” Howard pointed out. “Research is a vital part of this national mission, and NIOSH is proud of its role in helping to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.”

Howard noted that in “traditional” industries, which are defined in large part by physical labor – manufacturing, mining, construction, agriculture and commercial fishing – traumatic injuries and deaths continue to occur. Additionally, work-related illnesses from silica dust, coal mine dust, asbestos, lead and other toxic contaminants also persist. Howard said NIOSH works hard to apply research to stimulate, test and implement more effective interventions, as well as monitor incidences and trends to enable timely prevention and treatment of work-related illnesses.

New Technologies Bring New Hazards

While new technologies have emerged in recent years, those advancements also bring risks. Researchers currently are studying nanotechnology, for example, to learn about its potential environmental, health and safety effects. Howard emphasized that NIOSH's strategic research program on the implications of nanotechnology is one example that demonstrates the agency’s focus on identifying potential occupational hazards arising from new technologies and products.

Educating the workforce remains one of the biggest challenges of workplace safety, Howard said, and he added that evidence suggests traditional, classroom-based approaches often are not a good fit with today’s increasingly diverse workforce.

“NIOSH is exploring innovative ways to develop meaningful training and education tools for the new workforce,” Howard said. “For example, what approaches will be effective for young workers accustomed to interactive, computer-based or video-based instruction? What approaches will be effective for foreign-born workers, for whom the toll of fatal work injuries reached a record high number in 2006, according to the revised BLS estimates?”

Finally, the aftermaths of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita provided lessons in emergency preparedness. According to Howard, this “is essential for safeguarding emergency responders and health-care workers, and for maintaining the continuity of vital services.” He asserted that NIOSH is active in incorporating workplace safety and health guidance in national preparedness initiatives.

Quoting scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Howard stressed, “great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds,” and urged collaboration from corporations, labor organizations and others to safeguard U.S. workers.

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