A new report shows the changing workplace has shifted the kinds of occupational diseases, such as musculoskeletal disorders and stress, that afflict thousands of workers in New York.
Two researchers who run New York’s Upstate Medical University’s Occupational Health Clinic Center recently finished the first statewide look in 30 years at workplace impacts on disease and health, finding that an estimated 7,000 deaths a year are due to occupational diseases, with 13% of diseases in the adult working population from the same source.
They told National Public Radio affiliate WSKG that things in the workplace have changed since the last time such a report was produced, which was in 1987.
‘An epidemic hidden in plain sight’
Michael Lax and Jeanette Zoeckler have found the biggest new issue is musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis in the elbow and shoulder, and issues that result from longer term repetitive jobs.
Stress at work, especially in education and health care, is another big change they’ve noticed in comparing similar research from 30 years ago to their own findings.
These issues are costing the state $4 billion annually, but Lax and Zoeckler said, just as in 1987, no one is paying attention to it, labeling it an “epidemic hidden in plain sight.”
The 1987 report that Lax and Zoeckler modeled their research after found that 5,000 New York workers died from occupational disease and at least 35,000 more developed work-related illness each year. The number of deaths from occupational diseases has only gone down slightly over the past 30 years, dropping to about 4,430 annually.
And while that number is lower, occupational diseases account for 3.3% to 4.7% of total deaths each year which is higher than in 1987.
However, there’s hope since “work-related disease is preventable” and since such illnesses “arise or are made worse by hazardous workplace conditions, elimination or reduction of those hazards eliminates or reduces the disease,” the report states.
Deaths from occupational disease probably higher
Using the same methods used in the 1987 study, Lax and Zoeckler found that:
- when “emergent diseases” are taken into account, an estimated 7,016 deaths annually were due to occupational disease, with 5,243 among men and 1,709 among women, with work-related cancer and circulatory diseases making up the majority of deaths for both genders
- the estimated annual prevalence of non-fatal occupational disease is 13.2% of the total disease prevalence in the state, which comes out to more than two million cases, and
- 86% of the fatal diseases were cancers or circulatory, while 70% of the non-fatal diseases were musculoskeletal and respiratory.
Recommendations to help reduce the toll
Lax and Zoeckler found that New York could reduce the toll of occupational disease by:
- increasing funding for occupational health programs and developing mechanisms to make that funding sustainable to keep pace with increases in the cost of living
- building on existing occupational safety and health infrastructure by systematically analyzing existing data on occupational disease to target prevention efforts, developing other data sources for more comprehensive information and improving the workers’ compensation process to provide incentive for clinicians to participate
- preventing occupational disease through development of a statewide agenda that incentivizes employers to engage in occupational disease prevention efforts
- integrating that agenda across state government and private organizations and continuing that collaboration throughout implementation of the agenda, and
- building a worker-based occupational health capacity and expanding worker participation in collaborative occupational health efforts.