NIOSH wants you to think about occupational exposure in a different way. Several experts discussed the “under the radar” topic on Tuesday in three parts: the exposome, cumulative risk assessment and total worker health. Each of these initiatives contributes in complementary ways to the improvement of worker health and wellbeing.

Throughout much of its history, worker safety and health has been addressed primarily by identifying risk factors for injury and illness one at a time in the workplace. This approach has helped produce a consistent trend in the reduction of workplace injuries and illnesses. However, the approach may be limited in its ability to continue producing reductions, and the narrow focus addressing risk factors one at a time may limit the ability to improve workers' overall wellbeing. New more holistic approaches may provide a more effective path forward. NIOSH has begun exploring holistic approaches to improving workers’ health.

Paul Middendorf of NIOSH said when it comes to attributable risk of chronic diseases, 45 to 55 percent is unknown and most of the unknown is explained by occupational exposure. That’s where the exposome comes in, he said.

The definition of exposome is “the measure of all the exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health.” NIOSH is working to gather data and use analytical tools to make sense of how this affects workers.

Thomas Lentz of NIOSH said their plan is aspirational, but when you think about the past 100 years of development and the next 10 years, it’s been said that the pace of improvements accomplished in the past 100 years will be done in the next 10. It’s not an impossible challenge, Lentz said. “It’s a question of where to prioritize.”

Total worker health is about policies, programs and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker wellbeing, says NIOSH.

Lentz said, “We don’t stop at protection; we want to know how what they do in private life affects work. We want to establish workplace policies, practices and programs that grow health.”

For example, he said, NISOH is getting more insights into working conditions people endure because of the job they chose and why some workers tend to have lower life expectancies.