Worker survey finds chemicals, poor air quality among top health concerns on the job

In a new national survey, about one in every four U.S. workers rates their workplace as just “fair” or “poor” in providing a healthy working environment. And employees in low-paying jobs typically report worse working conditions than those in higher-paying jobs — in fact, nearly half of workers in low-paying jobs say they face “potentially dangerous” conditions on the job.

Released earlier this month, results from the new Workplace and Health survey are based on responses from a nationally representative sample of more than 1,600 adult workers who were interviewed via phone during the first month of 2016. Overall, the survey, which was conducted by researchers at NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that four in 10 working adults say their current job impacts their health, with 28 percent reporting that impact as positive and 16 percent as negative. Workers who were most likely to say their jobs negatively impact their health were those living with a disability, those in dangerous jobs and low-paying jobs, those working 50 or more hours per week, and employees in the retail sector.

“Every year, U.S. businesses lose more than $225 billion because of sick and absent workers,” said Robert Wood Johnson President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey in a news release about the survey. “But I believe that business drives culture change and with them on board we can succeed in building a culture of health in America. It’s not a hard connection to make. In many companies as much as 50 percent of profits are eaten up by health care costs.”

Following are some of the more interesting findings from the survey:

  • Among workers with any health concerns about their workplaces, the top cited concerns were chemicals and other contaminants, unhealthy air, accidents or injuries, and stress.
  • Overall, 22 percent said something at their job could be harmful to their health, including 43 percent of construction and outdoor workers, 34 percent of workers in medical-related jobs, 17 percent of warehouse employees, and 30 percent of those working in factories or manufacturing.
  • Thirty-seven percent of black workers rated their workplace as “fair” or “poor” in providing a healthy work environment, compared to 26 percent of Hispanic workers and 21 percent of white workers.
  • More than half of workers go to work while sick, including 60 percent of medical workers and 50 percent of restaurant workers.
  • About 20 percent of those surveyed identified as “workaholics,” saying they worked 50 or more hours a week. Most said they worked such hours because it was important to their careers, while 49 percent said their workloads made it hard to take time off.
  • Among adults in low-paying jobs, 51 percent said their job had an adverse impact on their stress levels, 38 percent said it adversely affected their sleep habits, and 35 percent said their job negatively impacted their eating habits. Employees in low-paying jobs also rated their workplace’s support for new parents as worse than workers in high-paying jobs.
  • One in five workers in dangerous jobs said their employer does not provide a smoke-free work environment.
  • Millennials — workers ages 18 to 34 — were more likely than workers ages 35 and older to work overtime or on weekends. However, 90 percent of millennials said their workplace is supportive of them taking care of their personal health.
  • A majority of shift workers — 54 percent — said they often or sometimes face potentially dangerous circumstances at work, compared to 38 percent of daytime workers. Also, more than one in five shift workers said their employers do not provide a smoke-free workplace.
  • Thirty percent of workers with a disability said their current job is bad for their disability, while 16 percent said their job was good for their disability.
  • Women were more likely to be in low-paying jobs than men. Also, more women than men said their job had a negative impact on their stress and weight, while men were more likely than women to say their job had a positive impact on their family life. Men were also more likely to face potentially dangerous situations at work.

To download a full, detailed copy of the Workplace and Health survey results, visit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.

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