August 31, 1997
Sneezing and sniffling, two flight attendants slowly wheeled a cart bearing drinks down the aisle of a plane flying from New York to San Francisco. It was hot July, and none of the passengers on the crowded aircraft appeared to have a cold. But it was not at all unusual for the flight attendants to be sick from viruses usually associated with winter (but not so ill they couldn't work). For flight attendants, colds are a year-round threat and a constant companion in a workplace where germs are recirculated with air in a confined space.
In fact, viruses and bacterial infections are such a problem for flight attendants that their union is fighting for an increase in the ratio of fresh air pumped into aircraft cabins. In the meantime, chronic colds put flight attendants squarely on the list of over 850,000 workers who suffer occupational illnesses every year. But that number is only a fraction of the 13 million people who are injured on the job every year.
These totals make the number of deaths from job-related illnesses and injuries seem small until you consider that 70,000 people a year die from those initial causes.
New research indicates that occupations are a poorly recognized source of injury, disease and death rivaling heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's for leading causes and a vastly underestimated sum of national health care costs amounting to at least $170 billion in 1992.
A significant portion of impairment comes from repetitive stress injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says RSI injuries cost companies more than $20 billion for 2.73 million workers' compensation claims in 1993. Costs outside of those claims for lost work days, for higher insurance premiums, for health care may amount to $100 billion.
The Bureau Occupational Safety and Health Administration applies RSI to anyone who is injured "from a repeated activity in which the worker is not physically fit to the job." That can occur because of poor workplace ergonomics (the study of the relationship between the body and machines). Musicians suffer from RSI, as do knife-wielding butchers and cargo loaders who must bend and lift boxes all day.
But RSI has spread to far more businesses and industries as computers have become ubiquitous in the workplace. As a result, one of the most common RSIs is carpal tunnel syndrome, an affliction of the nerves in the wrist caused by typing while seated, or with arms or hands poised, in an incorrect position. The National Council on Compensation Insurance says that claims for worker's compensation for carpal tunnel syndrome injuries increased more than 55 percent between 1991 and 1994. The council says syndrome sufferers have higher medical and higher wage replacement costs because people are disabled by the affliction for weeks or months at a time, and because treatment is frequently surgery.
A study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine put concrete numbers on the scope of work-related injuries and illnesses in 1992, the year under examination. But the study authors were careful to point out that their figures were only minimum numbers. They looked at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the Health Care Financing Administration. They tallied the costs of medical expenses, worker's compensation, missed work, compensation premiums, and resulting increases in the price of goods and services. But the study said the estimates were still low, since they were unable to account for the cost of pain and suffering, or to add up the cost of in-home care provided by family members. And they pointed out that the organizations whose data they studied can only compile figures from the illnesses and injuries reported to them. And those tend to be under-reported.
Many may not be recorded because they have yet to surface. In the past, workers developed lung diseases and lead poisoning after working with toxic substances like asbestos. The link was only discovered after the diseases became almost epidemic among certain workers. Today, only two percent of industrial chemicals have been studied closely enough to have documented information about the hazards and health affects of their use. Some of the other 98 percent may yet lead to any number of workplace illnesses.
Figures for workplace fatalities are probably grossly underestimated, as well. The Justice Department says that only half of the incidents of workplace violence are reported each year. The data gathered at the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that murders on the job rank second only to traffic accidents as the cause of death in the workplace. Over 1,000 people were murdered on the job in 1995 and that's 16 percent of all job fatalities.
The numbers cited in the Archives study of 1992 amount to an astounding 18 deaths and 36,000 injuries per day. The job-related illness rate works out to 2,300 new sicknesses per day, and 165 deaths per day from those illnesses.
Can any of this be stopped?
A lot of it, yes, if workers and employers strive to make the workplace hazard-free. That means, among many other things, ensuring that office workers enjoy ergonomically correct furniture and equipment, that factory workers are protected from hazardous chemicals, and that industrial machine operators are properly trained in the use of dangerous equipment. State and Federal agencies issue reams of regulations governing workplace safety, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site is a good place to look up those rules and up-to-date information on hazards.
Another useful site is Safety Related Internet Resources, a list of thousands of sites, newsgroups, listservs, Telnet and FTP sites, and e-mail addresses relevant to occupational safety. Workers and bosses looking for ways to ensure safety could link back and forth from this site for hours. In the end, conquering the hidden dangers of occupational injury and illness will require the same public awareness accorded to heart disease and cancer, and the same discipline and initiative devoted to preventing those maladies.
CAREERS is published weekly, on Sundays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.