Show compassion, provide stability, share hope: Total Worker Health experts talk return-to-work planning

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Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

Washington — The director of NIOSH’s Office for Total Worker Health says employers should think about the physical and mental health needs of their employees returning to the job amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Continue to focus on the supports that workers need most in difficult times,” L. Casey Chosewood said during the agency’s June 25 webinar on strategies for safely returning people to the workplace. “They obviously want to trust you as they return to work, so show them compassion, provide stability and share hope that we will all get through this together.”

NIOSH colleagues R. Todd Niemeier, industrial hygiene team lead, and Kevin H. Dunn, a research mechanical engineer, joined Chosewood in discussing reopening scenarios for general business, offices and manufacturing settings.

They encouraged employers to get familiar with several key guidance documents, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to COVID-19 and Resuming Business Toolkit, which includes a restart readiness checklist and worker protection tool.

Dunn said restarting normal or phased business operations is an opportunity for employers to implement and update COVID-19 preparedness response and control plans. These plans should be specific to the workplace, identifying all areas and job tasks in which employees face potential exposure, and include measures to eliminate or control exposures.

Other recommendations:

  • Designate a COVID-19 workplace coordinator, and ensure all workers know who this person is and how to contact him or her. The coordinator also should know and follow local and state regulations, as well as public health guidelines.
  • Conduct a thorough hazard assessment to learn about existing and potential hazards as workers return.
  • Consider changing duties of vulnerable workers to minimize their risk and contact with customers and co-workers. A cashier, for example, could be moved to a restocking job, if it’s appropriate and the worker agrees to the new role.
  • Follow CDC guidance on air and water systems in facilities reopening after a prolonged shutdown. This includes following the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ Standard 180-2018, which establishes minimum requirements for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning inspection and maintenance.
  • Delegate authority so local offices or branches can react based on regional COVID-19 conditions, which vary by state. This will ensure local teams have a stake in how they respond appropriately.
  • Increase the outdoor air ventilation rate or total ventilation rate to improve central air filtration to the highest level possible that doesn’t impact overall airflow.
  • Remove items that create traffic, such as coffee machines and bulk snacks.
  • Allow more flexibility for time off and paid sick leave so employees who have to care for children or sick relatives can adjust their schedules accordingly.
  • Focus on proper and regular cleaning and disinfection of high-traffic and high-touch areas.
  • Regularly include workers and labor unions in safety discussions.

“Above all, keep communicating and provide those necessary flexibilities (for workers),” Chosewood said.

‘Five active generations’: Total Worker Health webinar explores the future of work

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Photo: D-Keine/iStockphoto

Washington — L. Casey Chosewood pointed out the obvious reality every worker faces. “All of us are aging,” the director of the Office for Total Worker Health at NIOSH said during the agency’s June 10 webinar on the future of work and the implications for aging workers. “So this topic is germane to all of us, whether you’re age 25 or age 75. There are five active generations in today’s workforce.”

Chosewood said that although the future of work involves many new jobs, “we’re going to keep a lot of the jobs we have today” – but all jobs will undergo change. As work evolves, providing older workers the skills they will need to adjust and interventions to positively impact health are paramount. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, by 2024, people 55 and older will make up 24.8% of the nation’s workforce.

“How we adapt, design, redesign and create jobs is important,” Chosewood said. “How do we design work – both today’s work and work to come in the future – with comprehensive health outcomes in mind?”

New job designs that protect and improve health aren’t without concern, however.

One example is long-haul truck drivers operating semiautonomous vehicles to reduce the effects of stress and its potentially chronic impact on health. “The future of work is going to require debate about the future of such health interventions and certain negative aspects of new work like job loss and job displacement,” Chosewood said.

Along with stress, organizations should be mindful of issues such as substance misuse and industries with high injury risk, including construction, agriculture, mining and health care.

“I believe that worker protection and prevention efforts along the way not only are beneficial to workers later in life, but those interventions really help workers at all ages,” Chosewood said. “If you talk about intervening for an older or aging workforce, you’re actually doing things to help every single worker. Organizations that navigate this intersection well, and do it successfully, are those that are going to take a comprehensive, integrated approach at Total Worker Health strategies.”

Advocacy group releases guidelines for safe return to work

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Photo: National COSH

Los Angeles — To help ensure the safety of people returning to work – as well as those already on the job – during the COVID-pandemic, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has released guidelines for workplace safety; worker participation; and fair compensation for sick, injured and at-risk workers.

In a report released May 14, National COSH states that essential businesses should have critical safety measures in place that are enforced and monitored. Contributing to the report – A Safe and Just Return to Work – were physicians, certified industrial hygienists, attorneys, academics, and leaders of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations.

“The United States is far from being ready to open for business without putting not only workers but entire communities at grave risk of illness and death,” the report states. “Only the most essential businesses should be open, and even those must only be allowed to operate if critical safety measures are in place.”

The guidelines emphasize that protections must follow NIOSH’s Hierarchy of Controls, which places personal protective equipment as the final line of defense.

According to National COSH, a safe return-to-work strategy requires, at a minimum:

  • Effective and stringent health and safety protections informed by science; backed by robust enforcement; and designed with input from workers, employers and unions, among others.
  • A planned, detailed and meaningful system for testing, screening, contact tracing, isolation and epidemiological surveillance.
  • Guaranteed job protection and just compensation for workers, as well as individuals who can’t work.
  • Respect and inclusion of meaningful worker and union involvement in decision-making, return-to-work plans and workplace safety.
  • Measures to ensure equity, inclusion and a path to end health and economic disparities.

“Employers who adopt a ‘business-as-usual’ approach could cause workers and their family members to become sick or even die,” Sherry Baron, a professor of public health at Queens College in New York City and a contributor to the report, said in the release. “The right way to reduce risk and limit harm is to include workers in making the plan and implementing effective safety programs, based on the best available scientific evidence.

Nomination period opens for Safe-in-Sound award

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Photo: NIOSH

Washington — NIOSH, along with the National Hearing Conservation Association and the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation, is accepting nominations for the 2021 Safe-in-Sound Excellence in Hearing Loss Prevention Award.

The award recognizes organizations and professionals who implement effective practices or innovations that contribute to the prevention of noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus on the job.

To submit a nomination, email a letter describing the initiatives and successes of a hearing loss prevention program to Safe-in-Sound Review Committee coordinator Scott Schneider at nominations@safeinsound.us. Nomination letters are due June 8. Self-nominations also are accepted.

Nominees will be notified and asked to complete an online application. All requisite documentation must be submitted by July 15. The winner will be recognized at NHCA’s next annual conference, scheduled for Feb. 11-13 in Albuquerque, NM.

Stand-down to prevent struck-by incidents goes virtual

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Photo: CPWR

Washington — Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers of the inaugural National Stand-Down to Prevent Struck-By Incidents say the event will be virtual.

Set to take place April 20, the stand-down is a collaborative effort led by NIOSH’s National Occupational Research Agenda Construction Sector Council. Other partners include OSHA’s Work Zone Safety Alliance, the executive committee for National Work Zone Awareness Week, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, and CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training.

During the event – slated to take place in conjunction with National Work Zone Awareness Week (April 20-24) – employers are encouraged to engage workers online by downloading, sharing and discussing resources such as toolbox talks, infographics, training documents and videos.

“While most of the construction industry recognizes falls as the No. 1 cause of deaths and injuries, struck-by incidents are the primary hazard for roadway and transportation construction, which is the sector we represent,” Bradley Sant, ARTBA’s senior vice president for safety and education, wrote in an email to Safety+Health.

Work on the event began in late 2018, and plans for in-person events were nearly finalized when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Members of the NORA Construction Sector Council’s struck-by workgroup decided to move forward with a virtual event because a number of workers are still on the job.

“Inasmuch as this type of construction has been deemed ‘essential work’ by most state and federal government leaders, we knew our workers will continue to be exposed to struck-by incidents,” Sant wrote in the email, “and we thought it would be important to move forward and launch the planned annual event.”

CPWR encourages employers to “use creative ways to hold stand-down events within your own company that will not put you or your employees at risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

COVID-19 pandemic: Construction ‘one of our more challenging workplaces,’ NIOSH’s Howard says

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Photo: Willowpix/iStockphoto

Itasca, IL — Many construction projects are still underway despite the majority of states issuing stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic to help stop the spread of the disease, according to NIOSH Director John Howard.

Howard was the featured speaker on a March 31 webinar – the second in a series aimed at providing workers and employers updates on the pandemic – hosted by the National Safety Council in conjunction with NIOSH.

“State governors have issued stay-at-home orders and have frequently exempted construction and declared it to be essential,” he said. “It’s probably one of our more challenging workplaces.”

Construction workers are often in close quarters and areas that aren’t well-ventilated. Howard encouraged construction employers, workers and unions to partner and create a shared set of best practices to help keep workers safe and healthy.

Among the most common best practices to follow are physical distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when on the jobsite and making appropriate personal protective equipment available.

“We should separate workers as much as we can,” Howard said. “And, when we can’t, we make sure they’re well-protected.”

Other best practices include:

  • Encouraging sick workers to stay home.
  • Having forepersons ask workers to self-identify symptoms of illnesses. For COVID-19, symptoms include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Screening all visitors to the site.
  • Performing temperature checks of workers, preferably with no-contact thermometers.
  • Continuing toolbox talks, but making sure they’re done with proper physical distancing of 6 feet between each worker.
  • Identifying choke points in buildings under construction and working to resolve them.
  • Minimizing worker interaction when equipment or supplies are picked up or delivered.
  • Modifying work schedules by staggering shifts, or offering alternate days of work or extra shifts to reduce the number of workers on a site at one time.
  • Restricting access to closed or confined spaces.
  • Not sharing water bottles.
  • Disinfecting shared equipment (e.g., tools and vehicles) before and after each use.
  • Providing workers with handwashing stations. If water isn’t available onsite, employers should make hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol readily available.
  • For large construction sites, Howard encouraged employers to have a specific COVID-19 officer onsite.

    When it comes to PPE, “gloves should always be worn, depending on the task. And don’t share,” Howard said. “Eye protection is a must. For workers who have to work in close quarters, they should use appropriate PPE and augment ventilation in those areas.”

    Anxiety and fear among employees

    “This is an important issue we don’t talk about enough,” Howard said. “This is a very stressful period of time for all of us. Employers should pay attention to it.”

    He recommended that workers use employee assistance programs and other resources that employers make available.

    Cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting

    It’s important to understand that these three terms aren’t interchangeable when talking about precautions to prevent exposure.

    “Cleaning is getting the dirt out,” Howard said. “Sanitizing is what’s used in public health a lot to get down to a certain level of bacteria – sometimes 95% is killed. Disinfection is killing everything. That’s where you want to aim.”

‘Faces of Black Lung II’: NIOSH releases follow-up video

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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Washington — Seated on a sofa and struggling to breathe – even with the assistance of oxygen – late Kentucky coal miner Peyton Mitchell, then 42, delivers a testimonial about his battle with black lung disease.

“It just really took a toll on me,” Mitchell says in a video released Jan. 21 by NIOSH. “All the activities I could do outside, I can’t do no more. I’m pretty well on oxygen 24/7 in the house. It’s just humid outside. You just can’t get out and do anything. I just can’t do anything no more.”

Mitchell died of black lung disease in September 2018 at the age of 43. The 20-minute video, Faces of Black Lung II – The Story Continues, was produced in his memory. The video is intended to raise awareness of the growing prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly but preventable condition commonly known as black lung – especially among younger miners. Rates of black lung disease have more than doubled over the past 15 years, according to NIOSH.

A follow-up to the agency’s 2008 video, Faces of Black Lung, the new video also features remarks from former coal miners Mackie Branham Jr., 39, and Ray Bartley, 47.

“Black lung disease kills, and it’s once again on the rise, striking miners at much younger ages than ever before,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says in the video. “It used to be that we’d see miners dying from black lung disease in their 60s, long before their time. But now, we see miners dying from black lung in their 40s. Even people that don’t have respiratory symptoms can have black lung. Catching it early can allow you to take steps to keep it from progressing to severe lung disease.”

NIOSH reminds mine workers that free, confidential health screenings are available through the agency’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. Miners are eligible to receive a chest X-ray, breathing test and symptom assessment once every five years at a clinic near their mine, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Cdr. Cara Halldin, who helps lead CWHSP, says in the video. Additional screenings are offered via a NIOSH mobile testing unit.

Branham and Bartley, who along with Mitchell followed a family tradition of working in the mines, offer advice about the importance of early screening and detection.

“Just remember: Take care of yourself,” Branham says. “Because right now, I’ve got two 9-year-olds that I can’t play basketball with. I’ve got a boy I moved into college. I had to stop packing his clothes into his dorm. You can’t do what you used to.”

Adds Bartley: “Do I have any regrets working in the mines? No. I didn’t think I would get sick. My advice if you’re starting up … working in a mine: Stay in good air. Always be safe, work safe.”

NIOSH offers free safety education for high school students

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Photo: Sidekick/iStockphoto

Washington — NIOSH, through its recently announced partnership with the nonprofit organization America Achieves, is offering a new high school curriculum that includes workplace safety and health education.

America Achieves’ career exploration course, Quest for Success, is designed to help students “learn about and prepare for jobs of the future,” NIOSH states.

The curriculum includes safety and health competencies related to identification of and control strategies for common workplace hazards. The material was adapted from Youth@Work – Talking Safety, another free curriculum from NIOSH and its partners.

“Ensuring that future jobs are also safe and healthy jobs is critical to ensuring the health and well-being of the workforce,” NIOSH Director John Howard said in a press release. “NIOSH is pleased to partner with America Achieves to work together to prepare future generations of workers with the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe at work through an innovative career readiness resource.”

Quest for Success was developed with feedback from national experts, employers and other industry partners. America Achieves launched a pilot program for the curriculum in 2018 with more than 2,400 students in Louisiana. It was later revised and adapted for a nationwide audience, according to the release.