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Silicosis Prevention Furthered by NIOSH Pilot Program Aiding Identification of Cases in Seven Participating States

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
March 25, 1997

Data collected under a pilot program funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have helped seven states develop focused, innovative methods to protect workers from silicosis, a disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease.

The NIOSH-funded Sentinel Event Notification Systems for Occupational Risks (SENSOR) program-supported state-level data collection and analysis that identified 256 cases of silicosis in 1993 in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, according to a recent report by NIOSH and the seven states. From details about primary industries and worker demographics associated with the highest numbers of cases, the seven states are able to identify worker populations at potential risk.

“By knowing which workers may be vulnerable, occupational health professionals are able to intervene against job-related illnesses more effectively,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. “SENSOR’s pilot findings point the way to steps that can be taken nationwide to strengthen the surveillance of silicosis and other serious occupational illnesses. They also provide a vital focus for decisive near-term protective efforts by these seven states who are our partners in SENSOR.”

The report, “Surveillance for Silicosis, 1993 — Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin,” appeared in the Jan. 31, 1997, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC Surveillance Summaries, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Part of CDC in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIOSH is the federal agency responsible for conducting research to prevent job-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.

According to national estimates, approximately 250 people age 15 and above have died each year with silicosis, from 1985 through 1992. More than one million workers are estimated to be exposed to respirable silica on the job, and more than 100,000 of these encounter high-risk exposure through sandblasting, rock drilling, and mining. Silicosis is incurable but preventable.

According to the SENSOR report, these state efforts have used the silicosis data as a springboard:

  • New Jersey prepared a special fact sheet promoting the use of non-silica abrasive materials as alternatives to silica sand for abrasive blasting. New Jersey, Michigan, and Ohio have disseminated the fact sheet to more than 1,900 companies involved in abrasive blasting. Sandblasting, which uses silica sand as an abrasive material, has the potential to generate hazardous respirable silica dust levels. Exposure to airborne silica dust puts workers at risk of developing silicosis.
  • North Carolina and Wisconsin are assessing exposure to respirable silica during road construction and maintenance.
  • Texas is surveying companies that manufacture stone and cut-stone products to assess silica exposure in these workplaces, determine the companies’ medical screening procedures, and identify opportunities for early identification and prevention of silicosis.
  • To facilitate silicosis surveillance by additional states, NIOSH is spearheading efforts to standardize, across the participating SENSOR silicosis states, information needed to describe characteristics of workers who have been diagnosed with silicosis and the primary workplaces associated with their exposure. In addition, NIOSH is in the process of developing a computerized program for collecting and reporting this information in a standardized manner, so that data analyses across states can be performed more readily by NIOSH staff.

NIOSH began the SENSOR program in 1987 as a pilot program to more closely monitor the incidence of occupational illnesses in the U.S. Funding is provided through cooperative agreements between NIOSH and selected state and territorial health departments. The seven states that identify silicosis cases under SENSOR do so by soliciting case reports from physicians who are likely to evaluate patients with the disease. The states also compile data through various other means, such as reviewing death certificate data, assessing hospital discharge records, and surveying co-workers of persons who have been diagnosed with silicosis. The silicosis report was based on cases ascertained by the participating states from Jan. 1, 1993, to Dec. 31, 1993.

Copies of the report are available by calling toll-free 1-800-35-NIOSH. For additional NIOSH information pertaining to silicosis prevention, contact the toll-free information number.