Panelists: Occupational Illness Estimates Fall Short

"We see only a small portion of those at the top of the iceberg that are occupational illnesses and diseases," NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard said.

ATLANTA -- Many occupational illnesses and occupationally related diseases affecting U.S. workers are not being reported or recorded, panelists in the Sept. 29 Occupational Keynote session at the 2015 National Safety Council Congress & Expo here explained. The panel took place during the lunch hour at the Georgia World Congress Center but drew a sizeable audience, likely because of the panel's star power: The panelists were NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, and Dr. Thomas John Bender, M.D., occupational physician and epidemiologist with The Dow Chemical Company.

Howard discussed a study that indicated 10 times more injuries and fatalities are occurring than are reported, and he added, "We only see only a small portion of those at the top of the iceberg that are occupational illnesses and diseases," partly because these illnesses and diseases have a long latency period and often result from multiple causes.

"One of the things we have understood [is that] work-related cancers are preventable, and there are a significant number of them," Howard said. NIOSH has identified about 130 substances that are carcinogenic, but "we have a very incomplete knowledge base in terms of chemicals," he explained, adding that CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System now codes by occupation, which will help to identify work-related illness cases, and NIOSH is partnering with Ohio's workers' comp agency to identify work-related disease patterns.

Seminario cited 2003 and 2011 studies that estimated about 49,000 and 43,000 annual occupational illnesses, respectively, occur in the United States. "The problem of occupational illnesses in this country is massive. The numbers are probably underestimates," she said. "We really don't have a good handle on the problem. Our system is not set up to capture [data on occupational illnesses]."

She said medical costs for treating occupational illnesses are estimated at $21 billion annually, with a 2012 study finding that 50 percent of those costs are borne by the workers themselves.

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