Safety, Health Experts Say Most Dangers are Off the Job

Today, Americans are so much safer at work than off the job. That was the overriding message at this morning’s Safe Communities Keynote presented in Chicago at the National Safety Council’s 95th annual Congress & Expo. The session, delivered by a trio of experts representing the United States, Canada, and Sweden, focused on providing a blueprint for tackling off-the-job safety efforts, which is one of the main themes of this year’s Congress in light of yesterday’s designation of NSC as the leader of the World Health Organization’s “Safe Communities” United States initiative. As part of a national effort to reverse escalating injury trends through community and grassroots safety efforts, NSC’s Safe Communities support center is now in operation as “Safe Communities America,” and a Web site has been launched. NSC called the initiative “on the brink of going into a whole new world.”

Representing the CDC, Dr. Ileana Arias, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said that as the world continues to grow “smaller,” with fewer boundaries existing between populations, it is incumbent on everyone to make sure people in communities are not vulnerable to health threats. “Our national and local officials demand it of us, and the public rightly demands it of us.” But meanwhile, she noted, an estimated 30 million Americans experience a medically treated injury every year, and hospital emergency departments treat an average 55 people for injuries every minute. “Medical expenditures for injuries are approximately $117 billion annually,” she said, “about 10 percent of medical spending in the United States.”

Arias said the “bedrock” of the CDC’s involvement in the Safer Communities movement is the home. “We start each day in our homes, and we end each day in our homes, so a lot of the investments [CDC has] made toward the communities have been directed toward the home.” Toward that end, the agency has conducted research and implemented education on preventing residential fires. “Someone dies in a fire about every two hours, and someone is injured every 29 minutes,” Arias said. “Four out of five U.S. fire deaths in 2005 occurred in homes.” Smoking, she noted, is the leading cause of fire-related deaths, and cooking is the primary cause of residential fires in general. CDC-funded research on smoke-alarm installation programs coupled with fire safety education has proven effective and are continuing, Arias said.

Among older adults, falls are the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma, Arias said. In 2003, nearly 14,000 people ages 65 and older died from fall-related injuries. “We know that these are preventable,” she said, noting that CDC-backed programs aimed at this prevention include projects to ensure homes are safely equipped with grab bars in bathrooms, no loose rugs, and having reduced clutter in general. Maintaining exercise programs, regular vision exams, and having health care providers review medications regularly to decrease dizziness are also among the measures CDC advocates. In November, CDC is launching a partnership with Meals on Wheels, one of many partnerships Arias said the agency sees as essential. “Without partnerships, you can’t get the information out to everyone who needs it,” she said.

Paul Kells, M.S.M., founder and president of the Safe Communities Foundation in Canada, agreed. He said he began his foundation 12 years ago following the death of his teenage son in an explosion that occurred on the third day of his part-time job. “We’re your neighbors, we’re your friends,” he said, referring to Canada and the United States. “We do some things differently, but our common cause is that we don’t want injury or death to happen to anyone. We would do anything to prevent that. We swim in the same seas, and we’ll get there faster by swimming together. It takes time, patience, and perseverance, and that’s what safe communities is about.”

Kells said that one of the areas Canada and the United States share unfortunate kinship is in the two nations general failure to educate youths on understanding risk management in their lives. “The youths absolutely don’t get exposure to occupational safety and health in their education,” he said.

However, he added, the Safer Communities program is slowly, steadily making a difference. He said 23 percent of Canada’s population now lives in a safe community, and when Toronto and Winnipeg join the movement “in the next two years,” that percentage will be roughly doubled. With the program, “you will absolutely reduce injuries,” he said. “I wouldn’t be involved with this if that wasn’t true. But it’s clear, consistent, and proven—it works. . . . It’s about people and passion, not just numbers. People get moved by other people, not the numbers.”

Diana Ekman, M.P.H., Ph.D., of the WHO Safe Communities Collaboration Centre at the Stockholm, Sweden-based Karolinska Institutet, examined a few of the 120-plus safe communities now in existence worldwide, from Iran to Hong Kong. Dallas’s program incorporated a child safety seat campaign; Brampton, Canada’s program grew out of the need for a neighborhood watch program. “The programs that have sustainability, long-term leadership, involvement from business leaders are the ones having the greatest effect,” Ekman said.

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