25. Occupational Safety and Health

Workplace safety and health are key values that define the social aspects of sustainability. Many people see health and safety as fundamental rights that all people should be able to enjoy. Our society has done much since the industrial revolution to bring about those rights, and worker safety has improved greatly since the 19th century.

Beyond being a basic right, occupational safety and health problems impose economic costs on the affected households and society as a whole. Injuries destroy careers and undercut family livelihoods. They raise insurance rates, the cost of doing business, and the cost of goods and services.

How are we doing?

The rate of workplace fatalities has changed little over the past 20 years. As Figure 25.1 shows, workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers fluctuated between 2.5 and 4, dropping below 3 in the past five years.(1)

What is behind these figures?

Workplace fatalities are due both to accidents and to ongoing exposure to environmental contaminants. While accidents cannot be eliminated entirely, they are largely preventable through a combination of engineering controls at the workplace, employer and employee training, enforcement of health and safety standards, and a proactive approach to safety.

One of the most commonly measured workplace contaminants is lead, which is tracked by measuring the level of lead in the blood of those exposed to it. In adults, a level greater than 25.0 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter of blood, or 0.25 mg/L) is considered unsafe; the normal level in unexposed adults averages around 2.0 ug/dL. Regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) allow people to continue working in that job as long as their blood concentrations are below 40 ug/dL. Exposure to lead can cause a range of harms, including nervous system dysfunction, renal problems, decreased fertility, and miscarriages. Moreover adults exposed to lead can bring it home on their clothes, exposing their children as well.(2)

Figure 25.2 shows the number of workers per million whose blood lead concentrations measured more than 25 ug/dL between 1986 and 2000. The drop in this indicator since 1990 could indicate that New Jersey has made progress in reducing lead exposure in manufacturing; on the other hand it may result from the shift in the state’s economy away from manufacturing.

What else would we like to know?

The erratic jumps in lead levels in the late 1980s suggest that there may be some problems with the data for those years. Future indicator reports should also make use of the rich data available on workplace injuries as well as fatalities.

Indicator Target:

By 2010, no more than 70 workers per million will have blood level concentrations over 25 ug/dL.

Current (2000) level:

Who set the targets?:
Healthy New Jersey 2010, http://www.state.nj.us/health/chs/hnj2010vol2.pdf


(1) Data prior to 1991 were rounded to the nearest whole number.

(2) Pediatric lead exposure is a different, and potentially more serious problem than adult exposure. Children with more than 10 ug/dL of lead in their blood are considered to suffer from lead poisoning. This can lead to a range of learning disabilities and neurological damage. Childhood lead exposure typically results from lead in paint, soils, old pipes, and other indoor and outdoor sources.