Occupational health, environmental protections the focus of new public health policies

By | 2018-01-16T14:56:27+00:00 November 10th, 2017|0 Comments

The American Public Health Association (APHA) adopted 13 new policy statements during its annual meeting. These well researched policy statements and accompanying recommendations allow APHA to advocate effectively on the most pressing public health issues. Six of the 13 new statements address occupational and environmental health topics, indicating strong interest by APHA members in federal and state advocacy on these social determinants of health.  The newly adopted policy statements include:

Reforming workers’ compensation. Injured workers face significant obstacles to access medical care and lost wages through the workers’ compensation system. The policy statement describes the problem and its impact on individuals, families and communities. Among other things, APHA calls on Congress to enact legislation requiring the Department of Labor to propose national minimum standards for state workers’ compensation programs, and urges state governments to assure universal coverage in workers’ compensation laws and remove language that excludes certain workers from coverage, such as seasonal agricultural workers, home health care workers and contractors.

Ensuring language justice in worker safety training.  The annual rate of work-related fatalities in the U.S. is significantly higher for foreign-born workers compared to natives. Limited English proficiency among foreign-born workers is one contributor to a higher risk of injuries. This policy statement describes the benefits of worker safety training, but notes the vital importance of ensuring it is provided to workers in a language that is understood. Among other things, APHA calls on OSHA to strengthen its policies to ensure that safety training is conducted in a language and literacy level that workers understand; calls on EPA to ensure funding to develop training materials for agricultural workers that meet the needs of the distinct languages and  cultures in the current workforce; and calls on NIOSH to conduct further research on the extent and effectiveness of training of training conducted in worker’s native languages.

Addressing occupational lead poisoning. OSHA’s standard to protect workers from lead poisoning is 40 years old and sorely out of date.  Understanding of the adverse health effects of lead exposure has matured, including hypertension and impaired kidney function. Among other things, APHA encourages OSHA to revise and its medical surveillance requirement for workers who are exposed to lead; and calls on OSHA and state agencies to increase enforcement to ensure all employers comply with blood lead testing for workers.

Protecting food-production and farm workers. Many workers who are employed in farming, poultry and meat processing, and dairy production face harsh working conditions and earn low wages. They suffer some of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, and often suffer retaliation when they are injured or speak up about safety concerns. Among other things, APHA calls on Congress to permit OSHA oversight of small farms and pass legislation to include farmworkers in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act; calls on OSHA to adopt regulations to require food production employers to address the hazards that contribute to musculoskeletal injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome; and urges the EPA to implement and enforce the Obama-era rules to protect agricultural workers from pesticide exposure.

Protecting children’s environmental health. Children are uniquely vulnerable to harmful environmental exposures in their communities, homes, and schools.  Among other things, APHA recommends collaborations between health departments and health care providers and payers to develop systems that ensure lead-safe housing and reduce asthma triggers to prevent return visits to the emergency room; and encourages state or local officials, non-profit organizations and the private sector to engage with public health workers to accelerate the replacement of lead-containing water lines and reduce radon exposure.

Eliminating environmental health risks in schools. Many children are exposed to harmful environmental contaminants while at school, including pesticides, mold, radon and contaminants in drinking water. Among other things, APHA calls on state health or environmental agencies to create reporting and investigating mechanisms for children’s environmental exposures in schools; and encourages environmental health specialists to work with education leaders, teachers’ unions, and others to develop guidance on recognizing, remediating and reporting environmental hazards in schools.

Addressing air pollution to protect health. Millions of U.S. residents live in communities where air pollution levels are high enough to harm health. Persons of color and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by air contaminants. Among other things, APHA urges Congress and the public health community to resist efforts to weaken health protections under the Clean Air Act; and calls on state and local environmental and health departments to defend the Clean Power Plan and to collaborate with EPA to address environmental justice concerns.

The complete text of the policy statements will be posted online in early 2018.

About the Author:

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH
Celeste Monforton is a fellow in the Collegium Ramazzini; a lecturer at Texas State University; and professorial lecturer at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She receives funding from the Public Welfare Foundation.

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