A new report being issued today lends support to what many U.S. workers have long suspected: Working can be very dangerous to your health.
Americans are more likely to die from work-related disease and injury than from motor vehicle accidents, according to the report issued by the National Safe Workplace Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit research and education organization.
According to the report, between 47,377 to 95,579 Americans died from various types of occupational disease in 1987, an estimate more than 10 times higher than the official figures released by the Department of Labor, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Safety Council. Estimates from those agencies range from 3,000 to 12,000 occupation-related deaths.
The report suggests that occupation-related deaths are one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States.
Mark Cullen, director of the occupational medicine program at the Yale University School of Medicine, praised the study as "a very balanced, very comprehensive overview of occupational health."
But Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Alan C. McMillan took a more cautious view. "There are widely disparate data in this country," he said. "Part of the problem is that we are not all counting the same things."
The new estimates are high because the official figures mainly count fatal accidents, such as electrocutions and falls, McMillan said, while the new report tries to include all disease that results from adverse conditions on the job.
The National Safe Workplace report is based on a survey of causes of death listed on death certificates across the country. If there were so many cancer deaths, for example, the researchers multiplied that number by a generally accepted estimate of the number of cancer deaths attributed to occupational causes.
The report estimates that 5 to 10 percent of the nearly half a million cancer deaths in 1987 were related to work exposure, as were 3 to 5 percent of deaths from neurological disease, 2 to 4 percent those from lung disease, 1 to 3 percent of kidney disease and 3 to 5 percent of congenital anomalies.
Although the report doesn't cite specific jobs, Labor Department figures point to lumber and metal industries as the most dangerous for accidents.
Occupational physicians say that jobs involving asbestos, toxic chemicals and dust are the biggest contributors to occupation-related illnesses that lead to death.
The report's conclusions come as no surprise to many experts, including those at the Labor Department. "We at OSHA are concerned and have been concerned about improving our collection of fatality information," McMillan said.
"Deaths from occupational disease are a much greater risk and happen much more frequently than many other problems of great societal concern," said Kathleen Kreiss, director of the occupational and environmental medicine division at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver.
The new report largely agrees with a 1985 report from the Office of Technology Assessment that estimated 100,000 Americans die annually from work-related illness.
Three reports issued since 1985 by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council have also pointed to the problem of job-related illness and injury and the need for better surveillance of the work site.
But this latest report "documents in chilling detail the scope and seriousness of occupational disease in this country, and underscores the need for stronger federal laws to assure safe and healthy work conditions," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Yet funding for NIOSH and OSHA has declined dramatically in the last nine years.