Protecting workers’ health

[Fall 2013 Centennial issue]

Throughout the School’s history, researchers have sought to keep workers safe and workplaces healthy. From pioneering efforts exposing the adverse effects of early-20th-century factory life to current studies on the heart health of firefighters, HSPH researchers have uncovered scientific evidence that has led to new safety regulations and standards, and promoted a cultural standard that values the health of workers at all levels.

These are just a few of the notable accomplishments by HSPH faculty in occupational health and safety:

  • Uncovered more than 70 processes in which thousands of workers were exposed to lead poisoning, ranging from painting and pottery making to installing lead trim in caskets and polishing cut glass. The findings led to the adoption of legislation safeguarding workers’ rights in the early 20th century.
  • Diagnosed the cause of the felt hat industry’s “mad hatter disease”—mental confusion and uncontrollable jerking of the arms and legs—as mercury poisoning.
  • Described the chronic effects of carbon monoxide poisoning in garages, printing establishments, tunnels, and mining.
  • Documented psychosis-producing carbon disulfide poisoning among workers in rayon fabric factories.
  • Conducted the first thorough investigation into radium poisoning (detailed at right). It was suspected to be the cause of horrific degenerative ailments, particularly of the jaw, suffered by female workers who painted dials on clocks and watches with radium-based luminescent paint.
  • Illuminated the effects of altitude change and oxygen deprivation on pilots and passengers in airplanes.
  • Researched fatigue and work efficiency among sharecroppers, and energy and heat dissipation in muscle tissue in steel mill workers, producing a body of knowledge that evolved into the modern field of ergonomics.
  • Worked collaboratively with labor and management to improve worker safety in the rubber tire, meatpacking, and automobile industries. In three separate investigations, researchers from the School provided evidence linking worker health complaints such as respiratory problems and increased cancer risk to harmful workplace exposures. These toxic exposures included emissions generated by the hot-wire technique used for cutting polyvinyl chloride meat wrappers, and the metalworking fluid used by the autoworkers.
  • Linked lung disease in Chinese textile workers to cotton dust exposure. These findings persuaded the Chinese government in 1986 to adopt U.S. standards and reduce cotton dust levels by 90 percent.

Madeline Drexler