Occupational disease concerns will grow as the workforce ages
This is short-sighted, considering that more than 60,000 people die annually from occupational diseases. This figure comes from the study, "Occupational Injury and Illness in the United States: Estimates of Costs, Morbidity and Mortality," which appeared in the July, 1997, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
Grasp the figures. On an annual basis there are about ten times as many people dying from occupational disease as from occupational injury (estimated at 6,200).
But it's easy to ignore death from occupational disease. It most often occurs long after a person has left the workforce. Rarely will the death show up on the OSHA 200 log, and it escapes coverage by workers' compensation. Most employers don't even have the slightest suspicion that the job they provided caused their former employee's death. The deceased person's family and friends are also likely unaware of any connection.
Rolling the diceJudging by our country's demographics, I'd say employers who neglect industrial hygiene are taking a risk. Right now the median age in the U.S. is about 36 years. Back when OSHA was just getting started in the early 1970s the median age was less than 29 years. Nearly 13 percent of the population is now over age 65, compared to only 8 percent in 1950. More dramatically, the number of people over the age of 85 has grown 30 percent since 1950. These statistics point to death becoming a big business in the future. Just this year a new mutual fund was created to invest solely in funeral businesses.
As we attend more funerals, more people will ask the question raised by Bernardino Ramazzini in his 1713 treatise, *Diseases of Workers*: What job did the deceased have and could the death have been related to this occupation?
Just as the heat has been turned up on tobacco companies over the damaging health effects of their products, pressure will build on employers to demonstrate that their work environments did not contribute to an employee's eventual death.
In this light, it's not comforting to know that 71 percent of the top 3,000 highest volume commercial chemicals used in the U.S. lack basic toxicological testing, or that only a fraction of the chemicals used in most work places have an established exposure limit.
Employers will be challenged: What did you know about toxic exposures and when did you know it? Did you determine exposure limits for all chemicals? Did you evaluate simultaneous multiple chemical exposures for their additive and synergistic properties? Was medical surveillance for chemical exposure provided to employees on a routine bases? Certainly all the other tedious industrial hygiene activities--hard to put a value on now--had better be done right to protect your company in the future. This work should be considered a valuable long-term investment. Don't back off from industrial hygiene--stick with it.