Statement On Labor Day 2011: John Howard, M.D., Director, NIOSH


September 1, 2011
NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser, (202) 245-0645

When families began adopting surnames in medieval Europe, the adopted name often reflected the family patriarch’s role in society, or put more simply, his trade or profession. If you were a 14th Century English villager with corn or wheat to be ground, you went to the fellow down the road named Miller. If you needed to have a bench made or repaired, you looked for someone named Carpenter.

Today, our work continues to define who we are in large measure. When we meet a stranger at a party, the conversation eventually will turn to shared interests in sports, music, or current affairs, but an early question probably will be, “So, what do you do for a living?”

The answer to that query may involve any of several thousand diverse occupations. Doing a job, whatever the job, is a central part of one’s life. We take it for granted that when we go to work, we will not be injured, made sick, or killed. The medieval Miller had to look out for his own safety at the mill wheel, but the law pledges safe and healthful work for his descendant today who repairs downed power lines after a storm or cares for the elderly in a nursing home.

On Labor Day 2011, occupational safety and health professionals can take pride that we have had much success in helping to reduce the toll of work-related injuries and illnesses in the four decades since the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act became effective. However, much work still lies ahead of us.

Many traditional hazards of work such as traumatic injuries no longer take the toll they once did, but they still persist. This persistence is suggested by new preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics which show that the number of fatal workplace injuries overall remained basically unchanged from 2009 to 2010. icon

Emerging technologies raise concerns about potential risks that, as yet, may not be well understood or quantified. For example, as domestic and international markets for nanotechnology grow, society increasingly recognizes that the occupational health and safety implications of engineered nanomaterials must be evaluated, and precautionary principles applied. Another example: recent research has linked certain occupational exposures to indium tin oxide (ITO) with risk for a rare lung disease, pulmonary alveolar proteinosis. This would be a matter for concern in any case, but it is given even greater urgency by the dominant role of ITO as a component in the manufacture of flat-panel screens and monitors.

The changing dynamics of the work environment and the changing demographics of the work force pose similar concerns. Knowing that the health and safety needs of the increasingly diverse U.S. workforce differ from those of the predominantly male workforce of the 20th Century, we are challenged to find ways to meet those needs.

Emergency preparedness and response have also emerged as a critical component of occupational safety and health. We are reminded again of that imperative as we approach the 10th Anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and as rescue and recovery efforts proceed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

NIOSH works closely with diverse partners every day to address pressing needs for research in all of those areas. As our economy struggles to emerge from the current recession, and as we all operate within an austere budgetary environment, we are mindful that have to invest our research dollars wisely. At the same time, we must help make the case that preventing work-related injuries and illnesses is part of a wise national strategy for economic recovery and growth.

On Labor Day 2011, we honor the contributions of working men and women across the country, and we rededicate ourselves to the mission of safe and healthful work for all.

Page last reviewed: August 31, 2011