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October 06, 2015
The challenge of occupational illnesses

By Ana Ellington, legal editor—Safety

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The speakers at the occupational keynote during this year’s National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Atlanta discussed the significant problem of occupational illnesses in the United States.

Data limitation
John Howard, PhD, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, stressed the enormous burden of occupational illnesses on the workplace and society. “For every injury that results in a fatality, there are 10 work-related illness fatalities,” Howard said. Figuring out the cause of an injury is easy—the cause is right there. It’s not quite so straightforward when it comes to occupational illness fatalities; often they have multiple causes, not to mention that occupational illnesses are a higher cost than occupational injuries.

It is estimated that up to 5 percent of cancers are caused by workplace exposures. However, data availability is limited, as these cases are often underreported or not reported at all because most are not recognized by physicians, according to Howard.

Death toll
Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO, director of safety and health, showed data that occupational illnesses account for approximately 49,000 deaths annually, making work-related disease the 8th leading cause of death in the United States. Seminario focused on the importance of:

  • Finalizing key health standards (e.g., silica and beryllium);
  • Moving forward on key health standards (e.g., infectious diseases); and
  • Renewing efforts to update OSHA’s 40-year-old permissible exposure limits (PELs).

According to Seminario, there was greater focus and attention to occupational diseases in the 1970s and 1980s than there has been in more than 20 years.

Occupational exposure can be controlled
According to Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration David Michaels, PhD, occupational exposure that leads to occupational disease can be controlled. “There are many ways to control exposure, and employers can even substitute with safer alternatives,” Michaels said.

Michaels emphasized the need to update existing exposure limits, and expressed frustration that it takes decades to finalize a rulemaking. Michaels warned employers that simply complying with existing PELs may not be enough.

Employers should follow more stringent consensus standards or industry-safe work practices. Michaels said the Agency will continue to use the General Duty Clause to cite employers where a standard exists but the employer could provide more protection.

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