Introduction Concerns about occupationally-related diseases that are rare in the general population have provided an impetus for the development of epidemiological research (the study of the distribution and causes of disease in human populations) into the adverse health effects of the workplace.
Methods There are numerous epidemiological studies of specific industries, occupations and workplace ‘exposures’, from chemical, physical and biological agents to ergonomic factors and psychosocial stressors. These are usually observational in design and ‘classical’ intervention studies are much rarer. Occupational epidemiology plays an important role in identifying and quantifying risks and understanding the aetiology of disease and makes important contributions towards
risk and health impact assessment,
setting standards/limits in workplaces and the general environment
provision of evidence for compensation
estimation of the burden of occupational disease to society.
Results Epidemiological studies of current risks from past exposure have directly informed strategic workplace risk reduction programmes and campaigns and production of guidance and practical interventions for stakeholders. Together with mechanistic information they contribute to occupational exposure limit (OEL) setting. More recent studies illustrate prediction modelling of the impact of reduction of OELs and r strategies such as improving compliance. Results from epidemiological studies are also incorporated into economic evaluations of risk options and this in turn has been important in decision making e.g. in the choice of EU OELs. International epidemiological studies can demonstrate important differences across nations in workplace exposures, resulting health consequences and use/lack of prevention measures.
Discussion Occupational epidemiology thus plays a vital role in increasing awareness of occupational disease and enumerating the impact of adverse working conditions and exposures. The occupational health community should continue to push for increased education on occupationally related ill-health, encourage routine collection of occupational data and, of course, persuade organisations to fund appropriate research.
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