Labor Day 2018: A Statement by NIOSH Director, John Howard, MD

August 31, 2018
NIOSH Update:

More than just a “day off,” Labor Day provides us a moment to pause and reflect on the efforts and sacrifice all men and women across the nation have worked through to keep this country moving, day and night, contributing to the economic and material well-being of its inhabitants. NIOSH’s mission has been and will be to ensure the safety and health of all workers. One way to capture the importance of this work is to tell someone’s story.

Years ago, NIOSH produced a video, “Faces of Black Lung,” that put a face to the epidemic and provided insight into the disease’s devastating effects on coal workers. While produced a decade ago, the video remains relevant today. The black lung epidemic continues to be a focus for NIOSH researchers, who recently documented that coal miners in central Appalachia are disproportionately affected, with as many as 1 in 5 having evidence of black lung–the highest level recorded in 25 years. Developing and disseminating improved dust controls and improved technologies for monitoring exposures to respirable coal mine dust and silica, and providing health surveillance and screenings for miners through the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP) remains essential to protecting miners’ health.

This past year NIOSH captured the often harsh reality of working in an oil field in the moving video “Protecting Oil and Gas Workers from Hydrocarbon Gases and Vapors.”  Through the eyes of one family who lost a loved one, this video portrays the hazards associated with manual gauging and fluid sampling on oil and gas production tanks and describes steps that employers and workers can take to do this work safely. Gases and vapors continue to pose hazards on oil and gas well sites not just during gauging, but also during fluid transfer and disposal activities. A recent NIOSH Science Blog describes this emerging hazard in the oil and gas industry. NIOSH continues to work with partners to evaluate the magnitude of hazards and effectiveness of controls in the oil and gas industry.

This past spring also saw NIOSH completing five years of successful National Stand-Downs to Prevent Falls in Construction – a time where employers are encouraged to pause work and speak directly to their workers about fall hazards –  as reflected in the recent five-year look-back video with NIOSH and partners. As falls are still the leading cause of death in the construction industry, NIOSH is grateful for the over 7.5 million people who have “stood down” in the U.S. since the fall stand-downs began.

While oil & gas workers and construction workers become better equipped to prevent the effects of vapors, gases, and falls, these occupations, among others, are also at risk of being exposed to opioids. The last years have witnessed widespread attention on opioid-related deaths, more common among people with certain jobs, as published in a recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In an effort to address the epidemic in the context of work, NIOSH is confronting the opioid crisis and has consolidated its research and recommendations in order to advance health and well-being related to opioid exposure, use and misuse in the workplace. A worker’s interaction with and exposure to the drug can take many forms, from risk factors like stress, job loss and pain that lead to potential opioid abuse,  to workers who are accidentally exposed to the drug when working to detect and decontaminate an affected area.  The potential for addiction can be preceded by injuries that happen in the workplace, with the consequence of affecting an individual’s work and home life. NIOSH has collected data, conducted research and field investigations, and is committed to the principles of Total Worker Health® to better understand the epidemic and recommend policies, programs and practices that address specific conditions at work.

The NIOSH story continues to expand, even within its own agency structure. This year’s new Center for Occupational Robotics Research (CORR) embraces the notion of prevention, combined with curiosity and innovation. We never know who our co-workers will be. And in the 21st century workplace, our co-workers may not always be human. The area of robotics includes machines or automated technologies that are capable of performing a series of actions, from driving cars to performing surgery. NIOSH is committed to researching these emerging technologies in order to gauge the potential risks and benefits they pose, whether designed to work alongside humans, work amongst them, or be worn by them.

Whatever the needs of today’s workplace, NIOSH strives to conduct sound research and provide recommendations for preventing work-related injuries and illnesses, keeping workers safe and telling their story. This Labor Day, we ask that you consider how your every-day actions can contribute to the safe-keeping of America’s most valuable resource: the worker.

Page last reviewed: August 31, 2018