Workplaces play key role in terrorism war

During its recent conclave in Seattle, officials of the Arlington Heights, IL-based American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) noted that the anthrax attacks on workers at the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Postal Service and media buildings "clearly demonstrate that the American workplace is a critical front line in America’s new war against terrorism." To help win the war, the ACOEM is calling upon federal, state, and local health authorities to recognize the workplace as an essential resource and an increasingly important component of the public health system.

"Recent events suggest the importance of rethinking and expanding our systems for protecting the public from potential health problems," said ACOEM president Dean A. Grove, MD, at the College’s recent State-of-the-Art Conference (SOTAC). "The deaths of postal workers in Washington, DC, and newspaper workers in Florida, clearly demonstrate that — in the event of health emergencies such as those we have recently experienced — our national and local health care systems need to strengthen, incorporate, collaborate with, and utilize the resources of America’s workplaces. This is especially important because the attacks are occurring in and around those very workplaces."

The war against terrorism is being fought not only on battlefields, but also in corporate mailrooms, federal buildings, and epidemiological laboratories — all territories familiar to the nation’s occupational and environmental medicine physicians notes the ACOEM. The skills and experience these physicians provide in the prevention, detection, and management of individual diseases and injury are an important part of America’s integrated response to terrorism.

When workplaces are targeted, the health care system must be able to offer services to people where they work, says the ACOEM. One logical response to a mass event is to strengthen the ability of the workplace itself to respond. For example, some worksites and occupational health clinics can be made available for community testing and inoculations. Occupational and environmental physicians, with training in epidemiology, toxicology, and clinical medicine, are well prepared to supplement the important work and needs of local public health authorities.

"Occupational health clinics and other worksite-oriented health care systems are a ready-made and economical system of providing medical care," said Grove. "These systems are not only first responders, but in many communities they are already part of the public health program. Recognizing them as an integral piece of a broad public health system can immeasurably improve our collective ability to protect vital workplaces and to respond to terrorist attacks on our health, safety and environment."

The more than 400 physicians attending the conference adopted an agenda for change and improvement that includes:

• Encouraging public health authorities and occupational health professionals to work together to find new and creative ways to more formally coordinate available worksite resources into community disaster planning and response systems.

• Developing ways to increase employers’ understanding of what is needed for detection and response in the event of a terrorist attack or threat, and providing access to qualified and comprehensive management services for workplace health risks.

• Creating programs that educate employees about possible threats and teach them how to recognize health dangers.

[For more information, contact:  American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 1114 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60004. Telephone: (847) 818-1800. Fax: (847) 818-9266. E-mail: acoeminfo@acoem.org.]