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Statement By John Howard, M.D., Director, National Institute For Occupational Safety And Health (NIOSH), For Workers Memorial Day 2011


April 26, 2011
NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser, (202) 245-0645

Work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths have devastating consequences. This terrible toll is perhaps most visible to the general public in the aftermath of large-scale disasters that claim multiple lives. Workers Memorial Day, April 28, reminds us that the tragedies of work-related death, disability, impairment, and pain also occur, and indeed more commonly occur, outside the daily headlines and hourly news feeds. It reminds us to pay tribute to those who needlessly have lost lives or livelihoods. It reminds us of our shared duty to keep workers from harm.

This year, Workers Memorial Day also marks the 40th Anniversary of NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. While significant progress has occurred since 1971, much more remains to be made. Even as we continue efforts to eliminate the legacy hazards of the 20th Century, we are also called to address the emerging challenges of the 21st Century economy, including:

  • The health and safety needs of an increasingly diverse workforce, which differ in significant ways from those of the predominantly Caucasian, predominantly male demographic that characterized the U.S. workforce of 1971. As more and more chronologically gifted workers are on the job, we must be aware of the unique challenges they face, and design our health and safety interventions accordingly. As more and more immigrant, contingent, temporary, and contract workers join our payrolls, we must be aware that they are more likely on average to hold inherently hazardous jobs, and that they and their families are especially vulnerable to a loss of livelihood or income. No one should face the prospect of injury, illness, exploitation, or death in earning a paycheck.
  • The introduction of new technologies whose health and safety implications are unknown or little understood. We must heed the lessons of the 20th Century, and couple the development of beneficial new products or processes with responsible risk assessment and risk control.
  • The threats of large-scale disasters, whether natural or human in origin. Emergency preparedness and response has become an inherent function for occupational safety and health professionals.
  • Dramatic changes in work organization, scheduling, and resource allocation that often mean faster, more physically demanding, and more irregularly scheduled work for individuals. Having an efficient, motivated, and competitive workforce requires that we identify and address risk factors for work-related stress and fatigue.

The fact that we must meet these challenges as we also rebuild our economy means that we do not have the luxury of the resources that come with “flush times,” to use Mark Twain’s phrase. Consequently, we have to pursue our mission strategically and collaboratively. At the same time, economic recovery also offers the opportunity to demonstrate that good health and safety practices benefit industry and society economically. By reducing the toll of injury and illness, businesses can reduce the costs of workers’ compensation, disability, hours of work missed, and other losses that amount nationally to billions of dollars every year.

On Workers Memorial Day 2011, we look forward to a future in which every job is a safe job, and no one comes to harm at work.