Occupational Health News Roundup

In iWatch News, Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene report on a rash of kidney-disease deaths among sugarcane workers in Nicaragua. The workers generally don’t suffer from hypertension or diabetes, so attention has turned to workplace factors, Chavkin and Greene write:

Some scientists suspect that exposure to an unknown toxin, potentially on the job, may trigger onset of the disease. Researchers agree that dehydration and heat stress from strenuous labor are likely contributing factors — and they may even be causing the illness. Laborers, typically paid not by the hour or day but based on the amount they harvest, often work to the point of severe dehydration or collapse, potentially harming their kidneys with each shift.

… Some studies suggest risk factors, from pesticide exposure to alcohol abuse to frequent use of anti-inflammatory drugs, may play important roles in CKD’s onset. Others show that miners, stevedores and field workers in affected regions also have high CKD rates; a study in Nicaragua found a mining town to have one of the highest prevalence rates in the country.

“The evidence points us most strongly to a hypothesis that perhaps heat stress — hard work in a hot climate without sufficient replacement of fluids — might be a cause of this disease,” said Daniel Brooks, lead researcher of a scientific team from Boston University that is among a handful of groups conducting early studies.

During days the team observed sugar cane workers, mean temperature in the fields was 96 degrees. Their report noted that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees safety at U.S. workplaces, calls for 45 minutes of rest for every 15 minutes of work at that heat stress level.

The US government has highlighted Central American sugarcane as an important feedstock for biofuels.

In other news:

San Francisco Chronicle: Twenty-four years after contracting HIV from an on-the-job needlestick, nurse Mary Magee has revealed her identity. She and others fought hard for safe-needle legislation that has helped reduce injuries among healthcare workers.

Charleston Gazette: The Mine Safety and Health Administration knew about methane leaks at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2003 and 2004 and warned mine owner Massey Energy to take precautions to avoid a huge methane explosion. The agency didn’t make sure Massey corrected the problem, though, and in 2010 a massive explosion killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

New York Times: The US is shipping a growing quantity of spent batteries to Mexico, where the workers recycling them have fewer protections.

Knoxville News Sentinel: We’re still learning more about the effects of nuclear-weapons production on workers and the surrounding community.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration: OSHA offers guidance to employers on how to safeguard workers involved in cleanup and recovery operations following winter storms.