JOEH Challenges Readers to Consider Inequities in Workplace Health
Since at least the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increased attention and raised new concerns related to occupational health inequities in the United States: although the consequences of the pandemic have been felt nationwide, not every worker in every industry has been affected the same way. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 further pushed issues of social inequity into national attention. Consequently, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, with the help of the AIHA Social Concerns Committee, began soliciting articles from researchers in the summer of 2020 that may help OEHS professionals find solutions to health inequities in the workplace. These articles were recently published in the Journal’s April/May 2021 issue.
“Industrial hygienists and allied professionals have been forced to examine the health inequities along lines of race, gender, and precarious employment,” wrote T. Renée Anthony, PhD, CIH, CSP, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, in her April/May editor’s note. “Many have started to ask: should divisions at work or across employment sectors be considered as we work toward improving the health and safety of workplaces?”
“While the populations you serve may not be reflected in the study designs presented,” continued Anthony, “I offer a challenge to the reader to consider whether the stressors and biases studied here might exist in the workplaces you are charged with protecting.”
The April/May commentaries and articles summarized below provide snapshots of the occupational health issues faced by workers from some of the groups most seriously affected by the pandemic—including those in construction, meatpacking, and food service and hospitality occupations; members of law enforcement; and disabled and immigrant workers. AIHA members are invited to read them in full and apply the findings in their own work.
“Accommodating Workers with Disabilities in the Post-COVID World." This commentary highlights technologies that entered widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic and can continue to be used after the pandemic to increase accessibility for disabled workers. The authors also outline employers’ legal obligations to ensure accessibility and briefly discuss ways in which the pandemic may have affected different populations of disabled workers.
“Meatpacking Plant Workers: A Case Study of a Precarious Workforce.” The second of the two commentaries in this issue of the Journal discusses the problem of “precarious employment” as it relates to U.S. meatpacking workers. Although meat slaughter and processing work is dangerous and physically demanding, meatpacking plant employment is characterized as “precarious” due to low wages, poor protection from termination, lack of access to regulatory protections and standard employee benefits (such as health coverage), and the inability of workers to exercise their rights to organize and bargain collectively. Additionally, meat processing workers were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Injury Inequalities Among U.S. Construction Workers.” This study examines disparities in injury rates, demographic status, and socioeconomic status among construction workers by race and ethnicity. The authors conclude that different rates of injury among construction workers along racial and ethnic lines result both from demographic risk factors and socioeconomic inequalities.
“COVID-19 and Mental Health of Food Retail, Food Service, and Hospitality Workers.” Through interviews with 27 food retail, food service, and hospitality workers, this qualitative study explores essential workers’ own perspectives on how their mental health has been affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants expressed concerns of being infected and infecting others, employment and financial uncertainty, isolation, and poor communication from their employers regarding safety measures.
“Reaching ‘Hard-to-Reach’ Workers: Evaluating Approaches to Disseminate Worker Safety Information via the Mexican Consular Network.” Mexican immigrants working in the United States have one of the highest rates of fatal workplace injuries. NIOSH researchers partnered with the Mexican government and its consulate network in the U.S. to assess the impact of four different Spanish-language methods of communicating occupational safety and health information—posters, actively and passively distributed brochures, and video kiosks—on this worker population.
“A Nationally Representative Study of Law Enforcement Shiftwork and Health Outcomes.” This study was conducted to estimate the effect of rotating shift assignments on the health of U.S. law enforcement officers, including officers’ sleep quality and fatigue, physical health outcomes, and psychological health outcomes. Female officers were oversampled to address their limited representation in previous studies.
In addition to these articles and commentaries, this issue of the Journal also included an update on worker exposures to glass wool fibers and a short report on the effects of an experimental intervention—a cooling garment worn beneath firefighter protective clothing—on 12 subjects exercising in a hot, humid environment. Access to these articles and other material is available through clicking on the linked image of the Journal's cover on the left side of the Catalyst home page (members only).