Recent studies from faculty and doctoral students in the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing (OEHN) program at UC San Francisco (UCSF) School of Nursing have continued a long tradition of investigating overlooked health risks for workers – particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged and understudied groups – and finding ways to reduce those risks.
The recent studies found that hospital cleaning workers and dry cleaners are often unnecessarily exposed to unhealthy levels of toxic chemicals; taxi drivers experience elevated levels of stress, musculoskeletal pain and physical danger; and young people who’ve had difficult childhoods are at heightened risk for a range of work-related injuries and illness.
These workers are particularly vulnerable because they have often have little power to change their working conditions, few in-house health protections and spotty awareness of the risks or how best to address them. Yet they represent only a small sample of the working environments where individuals could benefit from more robust occupational health programs.
In fact, many people work in conditions that can and do adversely affect their health and safety and drive up health care costs. According to the Northern California Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) – of which the School’s program is a part – every day an average of 9,000 US workers sustain disabling injuries on the job, 15 die from a workplace injury and another 137 die from work-related illness.
Over the last few decades, many employers have recognized these dangers and found economic, regulatory and moral imperatives to keeping workers healthy and on the job. In the belief that the workplace holds significant leverage for changing people’s health behaviors, some organizations have even instituted programs that go beyond protecting people from work-related risks to include health and wellness programs such as smoking cessation, support for exercise and stress reduction.
The belief that the workplace holds significant potential to improve population health and the health of vulnerable workers is a central tenet of the Northern California COEH, which includes diverse disciplines from UCSF, UC Berkeley and UC Davis. The center recently had its National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) funding renewed for another five-year period (2015-2020), a cycle of success that recognizes more than 35 years of important work in which the School of Nursing’s program has played an important role.