Occupational safety and health deals with reducing and eliminating all work safety hazards, including illnesses, diseases, stress, injuries, and repeated trauma. The field of occupational health comprises multiple specialty areas such as statistics, social sciences, health sciences, ergonomics, safety engineering, and biohazard waste and control. Individuals pursuing this career can find employment in private industry, federal and state government, and colleges and universities.
Occupational health specialists seek to understand the injuries and illnesses that occur within the workplace, as well as causative factors associated with the injuries. Such an understanding is a critical step in prevention. Tracing injuries and illnesses back to their underlying causes helps occupational health specialists establish primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention programs to reduce the amount of worker displacement and psychosocial anguish and, therefore, increase productivity.
History of Worksite Health Protection
The Industrial Revolution sparked the need to reform the working environment when the textile industry switched from human and animal power to machines. Machines allowed textiles to be produced at a rate much faster than before. The machines used by the textile industry had a tremendous impact on production, and soon machines and technology became the cornerstone of the U.S. workforce. The benefits of using machines and alternate forms of technology are well known (i.e., increased production), but not many people examined the negative side effects of machinery and the use of technology on workers’ health. Even today, we still struggle to understand how machines, chemicals, and working environment affect workers’ bodies.
From 1850 to the 1900s, Lemuel Shattuck prompted a period of organization and reorganization of legislation to promote health. His 1850 report to the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts called for an establishment of local health boards to deal with issues such as sanitation, safety, health of children, and drug use. The Lalonde Report, a landmark publication providing clarification on the causes of diseases and death, along with a series of national and international conferences, spurred the health promotion and occupational safety movement in the United States. During the next 100 years, health promotion remained linked to occupational health. Not until the 1970s, however, did worksite health promotion and protection begin to gain strength.
Health promotion and protection provides the conduit between the science of the medical community and the U.S. workforce. The governmental organization charged with keeping every working American healthy is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) formed by President Richard Nixon on December 29, 1970. From 1970 to the present day, OSHA has helped facilitate new laws and regulations to keep the workforce safe in an ever-changing world, ranging from the first safety standards adopted for workplaces in 1971 to protecting workers against terrorism in 2001.
Fatal and Nonfatal Injuries
According to OSHA, motor vehicles cause the most deaths among working Americans. The highest rates of fatal accidents occur within the professions of transportation, mining, agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, fabrication, laborers, precision production, craft, and repairs. However, OSHA reports a steep reduction in fatal injuries counterbalanced with an increase in nonfatal injuries and their effects on the workforce and society. The professions with the most nonfatal injuries are construction, agriculture, forestry, fishing, private industry, and mining. Anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorders comprise nonfatal injuries resulting in the largest median time away from work, more than all other nonfatal injuries combined. The only competing nonfatal injury is musculoskeletal disorders, also known as repeated muscle trauma.
Reduction of Injuries and Deaths
Many methods attempt to reduce injuries and deaths among U.S. workers, primarily government legislation, alternative management techniques, and the creation of on-site injury prevention programs. The government document Healthy People 2010 outlines specific objectives for worksite health promotion and protection. According to Goal 7, Objective 5, more worksites ought to offer comprehensive employee health promotion programs to their employees. A reduction in work-related injuries resulting in medical treatment, lost time from work, or restricted work activity accomplishes Goal 20, Objective 1. Goal 20, Objective 3 from Healthy People 2010 relates to the area of reducing the rate of injury and illness cases involving days away from work as a result of repetitive motion or overexertion.
In the worksite, occupational health specialists analyze possible threats to employees’ health while working for the company. The managers of corporations have made many efforts to help reduce on-site job injuries. Total Quality Management (TQM) is a continual improvement process that combines common sense, education, and training with the abilities to communicate and work as part of a team. This approach offers two steps in work injury reduction. First, an audit program assesses and provides specific measurements of medical programs, ensuring that the medical program provides all three levels of prevention; that is, primary, secondary, and tertiary. The second approach is for a team to develop an alternative return-to-work program, which assists with early rehabilitation of injured employees. Early rehabilitation of the injured person is essential for bringing the patient back to full health and activity as soon as possible.
TQM programs positively impact the health and productivity of workers involved and set the gold standard for health promotion programs in the workplace setting. Regarding effectiveness in improving the health of employees and lowering health care costs, each of these programs meets the objectives set by the National Coordinating Committee on Worksite Health Promotion.
A worksite health program involves a combination of organizational, educational, and environmental activities that have the ultimate purpose of developing and supporting behavior that promotes a healthy work style of employees. Worksite health programs not only address safety issues at the worksite, but they also utilize the modern definition of health that comprises the physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions to help target the largest nonfatal injury: anxiety, stress, and neurotic disorders.
Specific objectives for worksite health involve increasing the number of worksites that offer comprehensive employee health promotion programs to their employees; reducing work-related injuries resulting in medical treatment, lost time from work, or restricted work activity; and decreasing the rate of injury and illness cases involving days away from work.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2007. Annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. Survey of Worksite Injury. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Data and Statistics.” Retrieved March 25, 2017 (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/data/).
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2001. Healthy People 2010: National Worksite Injury Prevention Objectives. Boston: Jones & Bartlett.
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