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Workers Memorial Day 2017: Statement by John Howard, M.D., Director

April 28, 2017
NIOSH Update:

Contact: Nura Sadeghpour (202) 245-0673

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Workers Memorial Day on April 28 once again provides us with the opportunity to pause and reflect on what is important for the health and safety of our workers and their families. While we consider the past and remember those who died or suffered from exposures to hazards at work, we strive in our efforts to apply what research has taught us to the workplace challenges of today. By advancing the field of occupational safety and health through the work NIOSH and others are doing to make workplaces safer, the hope is that future generations might pursue their field of choice without the fears of giving up their health, their safety, or the well-being of their children.

Throughout the 46 years since the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970—which promised every worker the right to safe working conditions—we have seen the workplace evolve. The structure of work as we know it, including supply and demand, is changing. More and more, we see jobs that fall outside of the traditional nine to five time slot. People are finding new, creative ways to offer their skills and services to the nation through avenues such as contract work, entrepreneurship, and home businesses.

Still, traditional jobs form an important foundation in this country and one that requires close vigilance and innovative solutions to address age-old hazards of chemical, physical, and biological exposures; struck-by incidents; slips, trips and falls; unsafe equipment; and pressures to work faster, to name a few. As new technologies arise, we need to evaluate them appropriately and emphasize high-quality training for workers. The need for skilled safety and health professionals, trained to keep workers safe and healthy on the job, is paramount. Social media now plays a key role as we leverage that tool to reach employers and workers in new ways. NIOSH’s steady commitment to each worker in every field is reflected in the dedication and innovation of its own staff – a diverse community that is adopting proactive methods and conducting research to support action.

This past year marked the start of the third decade of the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), a partnership program to stimulate innovative research and improved workplace practices. In this new decade, public and private partnerships are setting the agenda for occupational safety and health research and pursuing relevant studies and activities across the nation. This program’s diverse partnerships are working on councils to identify critical issues in workplace safety and health by looking at the numbers of workers at risk for a particular injury or illness, the seriousness of the hazard or issue, and the likelihood that new information and approaches will make a difference.

NIOSH’s strong history of partnerships has only increased in capacity over time. Business partnerships have opened the way for increased collaborations at worksites that allow us to study areas of exposure assessment and engineering controls to reduce or eliminate hazards to workers. These partnerships also allowed us to expand the breadth of our work, such as in oil and gas studies and dialogues on safety through access to oil servicing and drilling sites.  Agreements and memoranda of understanding have led to the development and testing of products and the refinement of technologies, including the NIOSH mini-baghouse retrofit assembly in the oil and gas extraction industry and wearable sensors that measure lower back pain levels in manual lifting.  NIOSH and partners have worked collaboratively to develop several mobile apps available at no charge to workers and to the public. These include the mobile sound level meter app that tests levels of noise in the workplace and the ladder safety app used to measure the correct and safe angle of a placed ladder. We are hopeful that the ladder app will help us address falls at construction sites–currently the leading cause of death in that industry. All of these new technologies help us put solutions directly in the hands of employers and workers.

Partnerships have also allowed products developed by NIOSH to be brought to market, including direct reading monitors for antineoplastic drugs, an impulse noise measurement system for industrial settings where workers are exposed to high-intensity impulse sounds, or the continuous personal dust monitor (CPDM). Until the development of the CPDM as a real-time exposure tool, underground coal miners and mine operators had little way of knowing in real time if miners were being exposed to hazardous levels of respirable coal dust during their shifts.

New platforms for expanding the impact of occupational safety and health research have been established including educational and business initiatives leading to the development of new risk management guidance, recommendations, and findings, including the potential human health impacts of exposure to nanoscale cellulose materials in nanomaterial manufacturing companies. Research has been translated into trainings to improve firefighter safety and health, a curriculum to help workers who have Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) learn how to stay safe while they do their jobs, or a training and certificate program for nurses on shift work and long work hours that continues to increase in reach and in number of participants.

NIOSH continues to have a growing presence in the merging of occupational safety and health practice with the evolving needs of today’s workforce. This Workers Memorial Day, we remember our mission even more clearly: generate new knowledge in occupational safety and health and transfer it to employers and workers to make work safer, healthier, and more productive for workers, employers, and the Nation.  Our place in the stewardship of the American workforce is something we do not take for granted.

John Howard

Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health