Worker health and safety yearbook: New science for healthier workplaces

When it comes to protecting workers, advocates often turn to science. Whether it’s research on the effectiveness of an intervention, new injury surveillance data or novel methods for pinpointing particularly vulnerable workers, science is key to advancing workplace safety. In our fourth edition of “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety,” we highlight some of the most interesting and noteworthy research of the past year.

On the topic of occupational asthma, researchers examined state-based trends and if patients talk with their doctors about whether their asthma is related to work. According to one study we highlight in the report, about 1.9 million adults across 22 states had work-related asthma as of 2012. Another study found that more than 28 percent of working adults with asthma were frequently exposed to asthma triggers such as vapors, gas, dust or fumes on the job. Also in the previous 12 months, researchers reported on the first known cases of lung disease among workers exposed to coal slag dust.

Scientists turned to multiple data sources to calculate more accurate numbers on work-related injuries as well. For example, researchers in Michigan used three data sources — hospital records, workers’ compensation and death certificates — to find incidences of work-related skull fractures. In analyzing all three sources, instead of relying solely on federal labor statistics, the industry in which skull fractures were most common shifted from construction to health care and social assistance.

Musculoskeletal disorders also got attention from scientists in the past year. Among the studies we highlight was one that examined whether declines in related workers’ compensation claims actually reflected fewer incidents of injury. Using data on union carpenters, researchers found while workers’ compensation claims for upper extremity and knee disorders have gone dramatically down, private health insurance claims for the same disorders had gone dramatically up, suggesting that the cost of such work-related injuries were shifting from workers’ comp to traditional health insurance.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published research on farmworkers and pesticide exposure, heat-related illness, and injuries among oil and gas workers, among other worker health topics.

In a particularly interesting study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers used trauma data to map work-related injuries by ZIP code, revealing that residents with occupational injuries are often clustered in certain neighborhoods. The findings present a new way of finding and educating at-risk workers before they get hurt on the job.

In addition to highlighting new research in our annual report, we also write about some of the most notable reports from nonprofit organizations. Among the many reports we mention are those on temp workers, workers’ compensation, the chemical industry’s attempts to undercut public health, and nursing injuries.

To read more about these publications and many more, as well as for links to the full studies and reports, download and share “The Year in U.S. Occupational Health & Safety: Fall 2014-Summer 2015.” The report also includes an appendix of recent research we felt was worth mentioning but that we didn’t have room to write about. Leave us a comment below about new research or reports that you found particularly compelling. And stay tuned tomorrow for a peak at the national news coverage and investigative journalism that chronicled the lives of workers and brought occupational health and safety to the forefront over the last year.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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