Haz-Map: Is Your workplace putting your health at risk? How you can find out

By Danielle Pavliv

Have you ever wondered if where you work could be harming your health? Now you can find out. The National Library of Medicine’s Environmental Health and Toxicology division has an online database that lets you see what hazards, if any, you are being exposed to. It’s called “Haz-Map,” and it links jobs with illnesses and injuries that have been reported. Haz-Map is the product of occupational health science, which studies workplace safety and is “devoted to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, and control” of workplace conditions which may cause illness or injury.[end Industrial Hygiene. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. United States Department of Labor. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/dte/library/industrial_hygiene/industrial_hygiene.html.]

Haz-Map began in 1991 with about 700 chemicals. Over time, chemical and biological agents known to cause health problems were added. Currently, it covers about 6000 chemical and biological agents and 235 occupational diseases.[end Fact Sheet: Haz-Map. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. May 2011. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/factsheets/hazmap.html.] Information on the website is regularly updated as new research is conducted. The new Haz-Map design allows you to search by job, disease, chemical or biological agent, or even by symptom or medical problem: click here to see it.

Interested in learning about the risks associated with your job? Simply click on “High Risk Jobs” or “Industries,” and search alphabetically or by the type of job. Are you a bartender? It turns out that working with the limes and celery often used for cocktails can cause rashes, and working continuously with wet hands may result in inflammation near your fingernails. Haz-Map shows that exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer (smoking is banned in bars and restaurants in many states, but not all). Hairdresser? Working with dyes and bleach can cause asthma-and so can wearing latex gloves! Law enforcement officer? Policeman and detectives can both at risk of heat-related illnesses, and the firing ammunition can increase the risk of lead poisoning. Physicians and other types of health care providers are exposed to many different risky pathogens by handling needles and caring for sick patients, but can lower those risks by taking proper precautions.

You can also search Haz-Map by disease to see what jobs are associated with certain illnesses. Leukemia, for example, is more prevalent among workers exposed to radiation (such as health professionals working with X-rays and people who work at nuclear power plants) and workers who are regularly exposed to benzene, such as painters, printing press operators, and gas station attendants (since benzene is used in inks, rubber, paint removers, and gasoline). Mesothelioma, a rare cancer with a poor prognosis, is usually caused by exposure to asbestos, which is less likely today but is still in old insulation, textiles, cement and roof shingles.

Facts and Figures

How many people are harmed by their job? The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (from 2010) show that fatal and nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses have decreased since the 1990s.[end Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 2012. Available at: http://www.bls.gov/iif/home.htm.] The reason might be because there have been many safety measures implemented to limit exposure to chemical, biological and physical dangers and minimize health risks in case of an emergency. However, a trend away from industrial jobs and more toward service and other “desk” jobs that don’t pose the same kinds of dangers may be another factor.

Fatal occupational injuries in 2010: 4,690 total

  • Sex: 4,322 men and 368 women died on the job
  • Age: more deaths occurred in the 45-54 age range (1,189) than any other
  • Race: 3363 fatalities among white men and women occurred, while 412 black people and 707 Hispanics died.
  • Occupation: Most of the deaths (1,160) occurred in transportation-related occupations, 780 to construction workers, 545 in management, 363 to workers performing installation, maintenance and repair
  • Event: 1,857 deaths were attributed to transportation accidents. Many of these were among individuals working in the transportation industry, such as truck drivers, but some worked in other occupations that involve transporting, such as drilling workers driving diesel trucks to drilling sites. Assaults and violent acts resulted in 832 workplace fatalities. Contact with objects and equipment caused 738 deaths, and 646 people fell to their death. A smaller number (414) died from exposures to harmful substances.

We have a long way to go but times have changed

In 1995, 6,275 fatal occupational injuries occurred-almost 2,000 more than in 2010. Of these, 605 were due to exposure to harmful substances, as compared to 414 in 2011. The rate of fatal work injuries per 100,000 workers decreased from 5 in 1995 to 3.6 in 2010. Instances of nonfatal injuries and illnesses also decreased significantly, from 8.1% of workers in 1995 to 3.8% in 2010.

Organizations that study and regulate workplace health and safety

All of the organizations below are devoted to the study and regulation of workplace hazards:

  • The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, or ACGIH, is an independent organization that formed in 1938.[end About: History. American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. May 2012. Available at: http://www.acgih.org/about/history.htm.] Originally, the organization offered membership to industrial hygiene (also known as occupational health) professionals in the U.S. and all governmental industrial hygiene professionals in other countries. Today, all occupational and environmental health professionals in the U.S. and other countries around the world can obtain a membership. Nine ACGIH committees focus on different aspects of the field such as agricultural safety and health, small businesses, and limits for chemical substances.
  • Several decades later, under the Nixon Administration, the OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) Act was passed in 1970.[end Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. December 1970. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=OSHACT&p_id=2743.] With this act, Congress established OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA creates and enforces standards to ensure safe working conditions for Americans.
  • The OSH Act also created the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which focuses on performing research and making recommendations to reduce the likelihood of workplace injury and illness.

How much exposure is too much?

Both OSHA and ACGIH have set standards or regulations for exposure to workplace health hazards. ACGIH created the term “threshold limit value” or TLV.[end Policy Statement on the Uses of TLVs and BEIs. American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. February 2008. Available at: http://www.acgih.org/TLV/PolicyStmt.htm.] This is the amount of a chemical substance a worker can be exposed to daily for his or her entire career without experiencing health problems related to the chemical. The TLV is just a guideline or recommendation, so it cannot be legally enforced.

The permissible exposure limit (PEL), on the other hand, is a legal limit set by OSHA. Unlike a TLV, PELs are not based on daily exposure over an entire working lifetime. Rather, they are typically given as a time-weighted average (TWA), which is measured over the course of an 8-hour workday.[end Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs). Occupational Safety and Health Administration. United States Department of Labor. October 2006. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/pel/.] Sometimes, a PEL is measured as a ceiling limit, which is the amount of chemical that should never be exceeded at any time. A short-term exposure limit (STEL) is the amount of chemical in the air averaged over 15 minutes. Why are there so many different standards? In most jobs, chemical concentration fluctuates significantly throughout the day, so it is best to assess chemical presence and hazards in several different ways.

Safety measures

There are many safety efforts that have been designed and implemented to protect workers from various dangers. For instance, construction workers often use hard hats, shoes that will guard their feet from heavy objects, and earplugs if they will be around loud noises. Doctors and other health care professionals wear antibacterial gloves, and they must wear masks to protect themselves around contagious patients, and to protect immune-compromised patients from the germs doctors may be carrying. For workers who come into contact with dangerous chemicals, rubber gloves and air respirators are used to reduce risk. It is better to focus on minimizing exposure to harmful substances or other dangerous situations than to use protective equipment, but these safety measures can save lives when there is no viable alternative.

The Haz-Map can be a useful tool if you are curious about potential hazards at your workplace or a loved one’s, or if you just want to know more about different chemical and biological agents and how people can be exposed to them. Explore the Haz-Map using the search function, or just browse by job, disease, or hazardous agent.