More than 670,000 California workers were injured on the job in 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available, and the National Safety Council says that figure is rising. These injuries have broad repercussions, because employees struck down by work-related illness aren't the only ones who suffer. Lost production time and health insurance payouts affect a company's bottom line as well.
Many accidents occur in historically high-risk jobs, such as mining, meatpacking and law enforcement. But workers in offices, the high-tech industry and the burgeoning service industry aren't exempt either. Back problems and repetitive strain injuries, for instance, afflict highly paid white-collar professionals as well as poorly paid factory workers and everyone in between, experts say.
Take the federal agency that gave us the lamentable phrase "going postal." Postal delivery people face dangers such as being bitten by dogs and getting shot at, says Marianne Brown, director of UCLA's Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program. In addition, "mail sorting still isn't completely mechanized so they have a lot of repetitive motion disease in the U.S. Postal Service," Brown says.
In general, employees who don't speak English are at higher risk for injuries, says Michael Kushner, who oversees health and safety training for the Service Employees Union International. Unskilled immigrants often take dangerous jobs because those are the only labor options open. An inability to read warning signs posted in the workplace or booklets handed out by management also makes them more vulnerable to potential injury.
Health-care workers are another group at risk. From doctors to nurses' aides, these employees are vulnerable to contracting diseases transmitted by contaminated blood, saliva and air. Some workers are at special risk for contracting airborne diseases such as tuberculosis, because they're exposed to certain populations that have higher rates of the disease, such as the poor, homeless and unvaccinated immigrants. And accidentally pricking oneself with a contaminated needle can expose a health worker to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or hepatitis B and C.
Last year, Cal-OSHA recorded about 100,000 accidental needle sticks in California, which so alarmed state officials that they passed a new law. As of July 1, the state requires medical employers to buy special needles with built-in safety features that decrease the risk of accidental sticks.
What can employees do to protect themselves? Kushner says it's important for workers and management to work together to analyze hazards and generate solutions.
"Often, workers have a pretty good idea of what the problem is," Kushner says. "Managers have to include them in the solution."
The Times surveyed a broad range of professions in Southern California that present distinct, job-related health issues. Although some of the occupational hazards in these fields may be obvious, others may come as a surprise.
Nursing Home Aide
As America grays and hospitals seek to contain costs by transferring sick people to nursing homes, the demand for nurses' aides has grown tremendously.
While the jobs are usually low-paid--$6 to $8 an hour is typical--they are also extremely taxing because of the physical requirements to handle ill and bedridden patients. In fact, experts say that a little-known secret of this increasingly pivotal yet bottom-rung health profession is its worker injury rate: 16 per 1,000 employees--more than twice the national average of seven per 1,000 employees.
"Unlike meatpacking, which is notorious for its industrial accidents, people don't really think of nurses' aides as endangered, but they are," Kushner says.
Back injuries are the most frequent ailments, because nurses' aides have to bathe, feed, move and otherwise assist patients. Additionally, they have heavy workloads and must work fast, which can also lead to accidents, sprains and pulls.
Purchasing hydraulic lifts for aides to use on patients in care facilities has been shown to bring down the rate of injury, Kushner says, but they are expensive.
"There's a certain amount of ignorance out there about these injuries, so hydraulic lifts haven't been implemented widely. But the money you save is worth it," Kushner says.
In fact, he says, UCLA recently finished a program working with a chain of nursing homes that purchased the lifts and found that despite the big initial expense, they still saved money over having to deal with workers' compensation claims and decreased productivity due to illness.