The Workers Are Not Alright

As workers return to the workplace with the pandemic not yet over, workplace safety is more important than ever

As workers continue to adjust to the new normal, workplace safety is more important than ever

By Yelena Globina, MD, MPH, Medical Director, Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health-Staten Island, and Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Yelena Globina, MD, MPH

Workers have already been feeling the brunt of COVID in the workplace, and with policies changing and offices filling up, it’s important to give workers and their employers information to keep the workplace safe. The most recent numbers show that in New York state 20,000 workers had applied for the workers’ compensation benefit for work-related COVID for the first half of 2021. That is a fraction of the 250,000 New York COVID-positive workers in 2021 estimated to have contracted COVID on the job, according to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

New York workers are not alone.

Nationwide, employers are tasked with protecting their workers. Yet they often lack knowledge and education about affordable and free resources. Many employees who get injured or sick on the job are confused about how to get workers’ compensation coverage for medical care.  The lucky ones whose workers’ compensation cases are accepted by a judge find few, if any, specialists trained to determine whether a workplace caused the problem, and what to do about it if the answer is yes.

Risk assessment and how to effectively protect workers

I recently treated a social worker whose team helped out at an outdoor, tented COVID testing site very early in the pandemic. No one on that team wore a mask, because their responsibilities were clerical. They had been positioned downwind from sick people getting tested. The entire team fell sick with COVID shortly after. My patient developed long COVID, which affected her voice, breathing, energy level and cognition. She went from working over forty hours per week to needing multiple breaks after simple tasks such as writing an email. She had to stop working, foregoing income her family needed. Gradually, she was able to start working part-time and as she recovered, she was able to return to her full duties.  Despite the good will and intentions to help at the testing site, her case study highlights a lack of basic understanding of risk assessment and how to effectively protect workers.

Similar stories played out in countless workplace settings over the past two years.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 3% of full-time workers reported falling ill because of workplace conditions in 2020.  

That is quadruple the number of cases in 2019. Many of these workers fell ill from COVID.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted problems in worker safety, but the pandemic and respiratory viruses are only one of many potential workplace safety issues. 

What needs to happen next

Let us use this top-of-mind moment to make strides in occupational health and safety for all.  Here’s what needs to happen: large and small employers alike need to know about available resources, deploy mitigation strategies, prioritize continued education and awareness of industry-specific risks.  Workers need help navigating the workers’ compensation system. Medical schools should be encouraged to offer occupational medicine education. Doctors must be trained to assess possible workplace causes of disease.  As a step forward, New York State passed NYS Hero Act assuring that all private employers “establish a written exposure prevention plan for airborne diseases like COVID-19.  Plans must be shared with employees within 30 days of their creation” and allows for formation of health and safety committees.

To highlight that workplace safety is more than just about COVID, I want to close with a story of a patient of mine, a New York City restaurant worker.   

One day, his coworker opened an oven right after it was cleaned at high temperatures. My patient inhaled fumes from the cleaning chemicals as he was passing by. He went into respiratory distress right there and then. He needed an occupational medicine physician to make the connection, diagnose and treat his occupational asthma through the workers’ compensation system so he was able to recoup lost wages and receive appropriate medical care.  If he had not gotten access to an occupational medicine physician, he would have been left without any income, unable to find new work, and left to fall through the cracks of the available safety nets.

Unfortunately, though, he later developed chronic occupational asthma and sensitivity to a host of different types of airborne particles including smoke, dust, fumes, and especially important for his line of work — sensitivity to flour. He tried but was unable to work again, having spent all his life in a restaurant kitchen. 

My heart sinks when I think of how easy it would have been to prevent his illness. If only his employer had been attuned to the potential risk, understood and educated the employees about oven cleaning agents and safety, and emphasized the importance of avoiding this type of exposure.  An industrial hygienist, such as those who work in our clinic, could have provided education and recommendations for product substitution, in order to minimize risks to my patient and his co-workers. 

We must ensure that workplace safety and occupational health remain a priority, through this pandemic and in the decades to come.