As record numbers of National Guardsmen and Reservists return to the civilian workforce from active military duty - in many cases, from duty in a combat zone - they and their employers face challenges that occupational safety and health professionals are uniquely positioned and skilled to address, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"Before 9/11, a commitment to the Guard or the Reserves typically meant a few months of initial active duty, followed by a weekend of service or training each month,” said NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard. “Today, service in the Reserves is more likely to mean activation and overseas deployment than in the past, often lasting for a year or more, often involving assignment to a combat zone."

More than 100,000 Guardsmen and Reservists are on active duty, mostly in overseas deployment and combat zones. Their return to civilian life and to the workforce merits special attention, says Howard.

Returning workers suffering from a service-related wound or impairment may be at a higher risk of a job-related injury. (In the past nine years, more than 8,000 Guardsmen and Reservists have been wounded in combat.)

Mental health is also a concern. “Post-traumatic stress, anxiety or depression may be an emotionally painful legacy of combat service, said Howard. “Where a returning hero is undergoing treatment for a condition, or alternatively has adopted a harmful coping behavior, what safety implications exist for their ability to complete tasks, operate machinery, or deal with work pressures?”

Additionally, workers who are still in the service may be deployed for several months or a year, which can create disruptions in the company’s schedule. “More and more, business leaders recognize that such stresses have implications for health and well-being, and in turn implications for efficiency, productivity, and profitability,” according to Howard.

He noted that NIOSH has begun to work with partners, including the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, to address the safety and health community’s role in anticipating and meeting the needs of returning Guardsmen and Reservists and their employers, determining the breadth of knowledge surrounding this population, and determining the gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed.