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Researchers at SUNY Upstate call injury and death in the workplace 'an epidemic hidden in plain sight'

Drs. Jeanette Zoeckler and Michael Lax recently finished a report on occupational disease in New York
SUNY Upstate Medical University
Drs. Jeanette Zoeckler and Michael Lax recently finished a report on occupational disease in New York

A changing workplace has shifted the kinds of occupational diseases afflicting New Yorkers. In a new report, researchers are calling death and injury in the workplace “an epidemic hidden in plain sight.”

Michael Lax and Jeanette Zoeckler run Upstate Medical University’s Occupational Health Clinic Center. They recently finished the first statewide look in 30 years at workplace impacts on disease and death, and things at the workplace have changed.

"I think the biggest new issue is muscular skeletal disorder. They make up more than half of the occupational diseases we estimated for the state,” said Lax. “So that’s a huge contributor. When I say muscular-skeletal disorders, we don’t mean strains, sprains, and falls. I mean the carpel tunnel syndrome, tendonitis in elbow and shoulder, the result of longer term repetitive jobs.”

The other thing that has grown is stress at work, especially in jobs in education and health care following the pandemic. In all, the study shows an estimated 7,000 deaths a year due to occupational disease, with 13% of disease in the adult working population attributed used to occupational disease.

This is expensive, costing the state $4 billion annually. But Lax said no one is really paying attention to it.

"Occupational disease is often ignored, and if it’s not ignored it’s something that’s thought of as kind of separate from the health system and the public health system as an entity to itself,” he said.

Zoeckler also said many issues like substance abuse, mental health issues and obesity should be considered under the umbrella of work-related diseases. She said the good news is, it’s an epidemic that is preventable, and that it’s important for workers to be able to explain to employers clearly what issues are causing work-related illness.

“Instead of saying ‘we’re stressed out,’ you can say in what way are you stressed, and what way can we alleviate the stressors to get at the root of the problem, instead of getting a Band-Aid at the other end to deal with their stress,” said Zoeckler.

Lax and Zoeckler hope the report ignites conversation about what constitutes workplace illness, and what action can help with prevention and treatment.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.