Michael Attfield, PhD, James P. Keogh Award 2013

photo of James P. Keogh

James P. Keogh, MD

Michael Attfield, PhD, is one of the world’s most respected authorities on the epidemiology of occupational lung disease. With achievements spanning four decades, Dr. Attfield has been unwavering in his commitment towards conducting meaningful research to improve worker health and safety.

The impressive scientific contributions of Dr. Attfield began early. After graduating from the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, he was a statistician at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland. During this time, he published papers on the health effects of coal mining that remain classics. In 1977, he was recruited to work for NIOSH in the Division of Respiratory Studies (DRDS), where he continued his public service for the next three decades, eventually earning a PhD from the School of Engineering at West Virginia University, becoming chief of the Surveillance Branch, and training many who are now occupational health leaders worldwide.

Dr. Attfield’s major contributions were demonstrating the radiographic and functional association of coal mine dust and obstructive lung disease among workers, as well as documenting increased cancer risk among workers with occupational diesel exhaust exposure. His findings have advanced knowledge about research and analytic methodologies, radiologic examinations, and lung function testing. He is an expert on the morbidity and mortality of a wide range of occupational illnesses, including cancer, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, tuberculosis, mesothelioma, and occupational chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Dr. Attfield’s publications have helped our understanding of a variety of hazards, including silica, kaolin, coal mine dusts, diesel exhaust, and sick buildings. By highlighting the many grave health risks faced by coal miners, whose working conditions are among the most hazardous and difficult, Dr. Attfield has helped improve the health of a traditionally underserved population.

The legacy of Dr. Attfield’s research extends beyond scientific literature to prevention policy. His work was the basis of the 1995 NIOSH Criteria Document “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Coal Mine Dust” and the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposed rule to reduce the permissible exposure level for respirable dust for coal miners. His 20-year study with the National Cancer Institute on diesel exhaust in miners led to a decision in 2012 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans. This has long term impact on miners as well as millions of other workers around the world. He accomplished this despite years of legal and technical challenges, always sustaining his long-term vision and commitment. There is no better example of the Keogh Award spirit to “fight long odds to achieve safer and healthier workplaces.”

Page last reviewed: April 26, 2013