Workers Memorial Day, 2016: Statement by John Howard, M.D., Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH):

Each year we pause on April 28 for Workers Memorial Day to publicly remember the workers who died or suffered from exposures to hazards at work. While worker deaths in America are down, on average, even one death or one injury is still too many.

To prevent injury, illness, and death in today’s workplaces, we must recognize new threats that emerge from changes in the world around us. Exotic infectious diseases that once were rare and remote now cross national borders with the speed of a passenger jet. NIOSH and its partners served on the front lines last year, literally and figuratively, to develop and apply guidance for reducing work-related risks from Ebola in a range of occupations from health care providers to mortuary workers, airline workers, and business travelers. This year, our partners and we are directing similar attention to worker issues as part of the nation’s preparedness efforts for the Zika virus.

Research needed on exoskeleton benefits, risks

From the challenge of protecting healthcare workers on the front lines to better understanding how technology may influence worker health and safety, NIOSH and diverse partners are collaborating to support the safety of all workers and workplaces. Emerging technologies such as exoskeletons and robots are being used to assist workers in completing tasks and reduce the strain on their musculoskeletal system. As the workplace changes, safety in the workplace must evolve too. Before emerging technologies such as exoskeletons are adopted widely in the workplace, they should be evaluated for both potential benefits and risks. While industrial robots have been part of the workplace since the 1970s, new types of personal and professional robots are entering the workplace alongside of human workers. Safety research is needed to assess potential risks from robot workers, and to develop guidance for safe interactions between human and robot.

Hazards in construction, oil and gas industries

Changes can also be found in the workforce itself. The NIOSH Construction Program, along with partners, will be participating in the Fall Safety Stand-Down for the third year in a row. This event offers a unique opportunity for employers and workers across the nation to ‘stand down’ by pausing work on their construction sites and dedicating time toward activities that promote the prevention of injuries and fatalities from falls. As the construction industry changes, it is necessary for outreach and prevention programs to evolve as well. The Stand-Down allows companies of all sizes to participate and promote a safer work environment by preventing falls.

The oil and gas industry has one of the highest workplace fatality rates of any industry sector, spurred in part by a large number of new, inexperienced workers seeking to make a living in the booming field of hydraulic fracturing. NIOSH and OSHA recently released a Hazard Alert regarding worker fatalities during manual tank gauging and samples in the oil and gas extraction industry. The Alert covers the safety and health hazards workers may encounter when manually gauging or sampling fluids from production, flowback, or other tanks. This Alert helps bring NIOSH research to the industry by providing recommendations to improve worker safety when manually gauging tanks. NIOSH researchers continue to conduct field testing to protect oil and gas workers from health risks associated with toxic exposures, as well as risks of traumatic injuries and deaths associated with the busy, physically demanding nature of extraction sites.

Opioid epidemic

Public health campaigns to confront the opioid epidemic in America must incorporate the opportunity to reduce growing dependency on pain-killing drugs by preventing, in the first place, job-related injuries that lead to chronic disabling pain. Prescription drug abuse and overdoses are a major public health concern. Workers in all industries may face unique risk as injuries sustained at work are increasingly treated with powerful prescription drugs. Employers, workers, and healthcare providers must join together to combat this epidemic.

Driving safety

Finally, we’ve seen a shift in the nature of work itself. The workplace is no longer confined to a factory or office from 9 to 5. The workplace of today may be one where work is conducted on-the-go—on mobile devices that all too often take our eyes and attention off of the road. It is important for employers to promote safe driving practices for those driving for their job. NIOSH and its partners are working to ensure that everyone is safe on the road. In our latest publication, NIOSH focuses on older drivers and their increased likelihood of dying in a work-related crash. To combat this statistic, NIOSH has provided workers and employers with information on how to prevent crashes in the workplace.

Aging workforce

Older workers bring extensive skill, knowledge, and experience to the workplace. Today, one in every five American workers is over 65 years old and by 2020 one in four will be over the age of 55. NIOSH is working to address the needs of the aging workforce and identifying interventions and strategies to support both the workers and the organizations that employ them. It is our hope that raising awareness and promoting a safe environment for all workers will increase the safety of the aging workforce.

With 2016 comes the 20th birthday of the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), a historic public-private partnership to stimulate innovative research and improve workplace practices. Now, we look to the third decade as an opportunity to increase the diversity of partners participating in NORA. This Workers Memorial Day, while we pay homage to those who have been hurt or killed on the job, we must also focus on the future of the workplace and continue to produce knowledge and solutions that are vital to reducing risks of injury and illness among the America’s workforce until the number of deaths is zero.