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Occupational epidemiology: successes in past, but challenges ahead

October 10, 2011
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TeamworkOccupational epidemiology by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and partners helped to make workplaces significantly safer and healthier over the past four decades, according to an article published in a recent issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

“Occupational Epidemiology and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health” is one of 15 articles in the special supplement, “Public Health Then and Now: Celebrating 50 Years of MMWR at CDC.”  The authors of the article are William Halperin, M.D. and John Howard, M.D.  The article is available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6004a15.htm?s_cid=su6004a15_w.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which created NIOSH, established three roles for epidemiology as part of the Institute’s scientific expertise, the article notes.  The three roles are field epidemiology under the Health Hazard Evaluation program, epidemiology in large studies across multiple sites, and surveillance for job-related disease and injury.

The research authority vested in NIOSH has helped to fuel advances by NIOSH and its partners against a broad range of workplace hazards.  Those hazards include lead, asbestos, dioxin, coal mine dust, traumatic injuries, workplace violence, latex allergy, and occupational lung disease associated with butter flavorings.

Further, the article notes, that authority stimulated “an effective patchwork” of new health surveillance systems that greatly improved the ability to identify, measure, and address hazards – among them:  traumatic injuries and cardiovascular disease among fire fighters, health care employees’ risk of infection from sharps injuries, fatal work injuries among teen workers, silicosis, and pesticide poisoning.

In building on its “extraordinary capacity” in epidemiology to confront the demands of the 21st Century, NIOSH faces these challenges, Dr. Halperin and Dr. Howard said:

• Applying epidemiology to ensure the safety of new advances in commerce and technology.
• Leveraging resources to help states build capacity in occupational safety and health.
• Supporting a robust system to train health and safety professionals, and to sustain trainers.
• Addressing worker safety and health needs in an era of increasing globalization.

“The ultimate challenge for NIOSH is to not only effectively control occupational diseases and injuries that are the remnants of the last century, but also to preempt new hazardous exposures and conditions from gaining a foothold in the new century,” Dr. Halperin and Dr. Howard said.   More information about NIOSH can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh.

NIOSH is the federal agency that conducts research and makes recommendations for preventing work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.  It was created under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.  More information on NIOSH can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh.

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