Filipinos are generally music-loving so I think most are familiar with the title of this article which also a song popularized by Roberta Flack. But as one who has been working in the area of work safety and health, this is also what comes to my mind when I think of occupational health hazards.
Occupational health hazards are mostly silent killers – they affect workers slowly and if not recognized and controls put in place, put workers’ health at risk at a later time. Unlike work accidents where the effects are usually immediate (think of falls from heights; slips, trips, falls; cuts/lacerations, etc.) and bloody gory, occupational diseases on the other hand, may take years to see the effects.
As a review, occupational health hazards fall into four (4) categories: 1) physical as noise, heat, vibration, radiation; 2) biological as bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms that cause diseases; 3) chemicals as the fumes, mists, vapors, air borne contaminants workers are exposed to at work; and 4) ergonomic stressors as awkward positions, repetitive motions that cause musculo-skeletal complaints.
Just reading through these categories will give you an idea that the most serious effects for physical hazards are loss of hearing (for noise); heat exhaustion/stroke (for heat); “white fingers” for users of jackhammers which vibrate a lot; and blindness for welders as welding work emit a form of radiation which can damage the eyes.
We have heard of Ebola which is an occupational hazard of health care givers as nurses and doctors. HIV/AIDS is also an occupational exposure again, for health care providers, and commercial sex workers. Tetanus is a risk for agricultural workers while malaria or dengue is a risk if the work place is located near bodies of water which harbors the malaria mosquitoes. Brucellosis is a threat to veterinarians and other workers who may unintentionally handle infected meat.
Chemicals pose a variety of threats. For example, banana plantation workers exposed to aerial sprays, have lower than the national average of children ( they said that a couple is lucky if they have one or two children). Exposures to chemicals can range from chemical burns; occupational dermatitis, and if unlucky enough, to cancer of different types. It was explained to me by an occupational health practitioner that chemicals have “target” organ systems. Welders may suffer from tremors, liver disorders since the chemicals used in welding targets the nervous system as well the renal system. Finally, think of the movie, “Erin Brokovich” where a company was sued to millions of dollars for the chemicals they “dumped” into the ground thus affecting the water supply of the community causing cancers and other diseases to the people in the area. The effects of chemicals are just too many to discuss here. Care must therefore be taken when handling or being exposed to them while at work.
Effects of ergonomic stressors can be both psychological (some of the manifestations are insomnia, high blood, or feelings of extreme fatigue or helplessness); or physiological leading to a host of muskulo skeletal complaints like low back pain or pain in the neck or shoulder areas.
So you see, occupational health hazards affects more people than work accidents. Even the International Labor Organization (ILO) says in its 2008 Work Safety report says that while fatalities due to work accidents around the world are in the area of 360,000; deaths due to occupational diseases is estimated to be less than 2 million. But they are usually not recognized, thus killing the affected workers ‘slowly”.
Photo credit: Igor Ovsyannykov