Low-wage, low-skilled, and immigrant workers face disproportionately high risks for work-related injuries and illnesses in comparison with the U.S. workforce in general, according to a recent update from the National Institute for Occupation Health and Safety (NIOSH). They also encounter significant barriers in accessing training and education programs, health care systems, and legal protections that are critical for mitigating those risks.

NIOSH researchers and partners from other agencies and organizations address the needs, challenges, and opportunities for improving workplace safety and health for underserved worker populations in a special February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, “Occupational Health Disparities.”

“No one should suffer a job-related injury or illness, least of all those who are most vulnerable to the economic hardship associated with the loss of income from work-related impairment or disability,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “NIOSH is pleased to work with its partners to identify factors that put disadvantaged populations at elevated risk of injury and illness on the job, to target the inequities that compound those risks, and to develop effective interventions.”

“This special issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine adds to our knowledge by examining occupational health disparities and inequities immigrant and other workers face, and measuring the extent of the problem,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis states in a Foreword to the issue. “In addition to helping address the need for better data, this research promises to create new knowledge that can be used to improve the lives of our nation’s workers."

The articles by NIOSH researchers and co-authors in the February issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine highlight these aspects of addressing occupational health disparities:
  • Occupational health surveillance must be enhanced and improved to describe the nature and extent of disparities in occupational illnesses and injuries (including fatalities), identify priorities for research and intervention, and evaluate trends. This is a priority of NIOSH and its partners under the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA). Serious shortcomings in current surveillance systems include an undercounting of what research suggests to be the true incidence of work-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths, and a lack of information in key datasets that would allow users to identify incidence and trends in cases by race, ethnicity, and place of birth.
  • A case study under NIOSH’s state-based Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risk (SENSOR) demonstrated the value of occupational health surveillance for protecting migrant farmworkers from risk of job-related illness. SENSOR’s pesticide-poisoning surveillance staff identified a birth-defects cluster among migrant farmworkers exposed to pesticides. Subsequent state legislation in North Carolina provided funding to strengthen surveillance, improve the quality of state inspections for compliance with pesticide regulations, increase and improve worker pesticide safety training, and broaden the coverage of state anti-retaliation rules to include agricultural workers.
  • Questionnaires for worker health studies that ask questions in different languages are essential for identifying work-related injuries and illnesses, and trends in those cases, among the ethnically diverse U.S. workforce. Developing such questionnaires is complex, and literal translation often is not appropriate or accurate. More research should be focused on development of useful bilingual and multilingual research tools.
For more information about NIOSH’s strategic research program on health disparities can be found at www.cdc.gov/niosh/programs/ohd/.