Occupational Hazards of Space Travel

February 06, 2017

Long-term space flight appears to trigger a number of genetic and biological changes in astronauts, according to preliminary results from a NASA study. Researchers compared astronaut Scott Kelly, who returned home last March after nearly a year aboard the International Space Station, and his identical twin Mark, a retired astronaut. Mark remained on Earth during that time.

"Ten researchers are sharing biological samples taken from each twin before, during and after Scott's mission," according to a NASA news release. The goal of the NASA Twins Study is to learn more about how extended time in space affects the body.

According to the report, Scott had altered levels of lipids (an indication of inflammation), and the telomeres on the ends of chromosomes in his white blood cells increased in length while he was in space. However, the telomeres started to shorten again after his return to Earth.

Telomeres decrease in length as a person ages. The lengthening of Scott's telomeres while in space could have been due to increased exercise and reduced caloric intake, researchers suggest.

Scientists found that telomerase activity (the enzyme that repairs telomeres and lengthens them) increased in both twins in November. This might be due to a major stressful family event that occurred around that time, the researchers said.

The study also found a slight decrease in Scott's thinking speed and accuracy after his one-year space mission. But his overall thinking wasn't all that different than that seen after a six-month space mission, the researchers noted.

Scott also appeared to have a decline in bone formation during the second half of his mission, and an increase in inflammation soon after his return to Earth. One theory attributed this to the stress of re-entry and landing.

Differences in the viral, bacterial, and fungal populations in the twins' digestive systems were noted while Scott was in space. These were likely due to their different environments and diets, the scientists determined. The ratio of two dominant bacterial groups shifted while Scott was in space but returned to pre-flight levels when he returned to Earth, they said.

Also of note, more than 200,000 RNA molecules in white blood cells were expressed differently in the twins while Scott was in space. Researchers plan to investigate if a "space gene" could have been activated while Scott was on the space station. The scientists also looked at the level of chemical modifications (methylation) in the DNA of Scott's white blood cells. These decreased while in space, but returned to normal when he was back on Earth, the findings showed.

While variability in methylation patterns was seen in both twins, it was slightly higher in Scott during his spaceflight but went back to baseline levels after his return. This could indicate genes that are more sensitive to a changing environment whether on Earth or in space.

The findings were presented at a recent NASA meeting and will be published later this year. Until that time, they should be considered preliminary.

Beryllium Rule Effective Date Delayed

In accordance with the Presidential directive as expressed in the memorandum of January 20, 2017, from the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff, entitled "Regulatory Freeze Pending Review,” OSHA has temporarily delayed until March 21, 2017 the effective date of the rule entitled Occupational Exposure to Beryllium, published in the Federal Register on January 9, 2017 (82 FR 2470), to allow OSHA officials the opportunity for further review and consideration of new regulations. According to the announcement, public comment is not being accepted due to the use of the good cause exception, claiming that opening the directive for public comment would be “contrary to the public interest.”

NIOSH App Measures Sound Levels in the Workplace


The NIOSH Sound Level Meter mobile app, newly available for iOS devices, is intended to measure sound levels in the workplace and help raise workers’ awareness about noise exposure and occupational noise-induced hearing loss. The app, which reports instantaneous sound levels in A, C, or Z-weighted decibels, is free to download and was designed for industrial hygienists, occupational health and safety managers, and workers who may not have access to professional sound measurement instruments.

NIOSH researchers evaluated 192 sound-measurement apps for iOS and Android devices in 2014 and discovered that most apps lacked the accuracy and functionality for conducting occupational noise measurements. That study helped prompt NIOSH’s collaboration with app developer EA LAB to develop an app able to measure and characterize occupational noise exposure similar to professional instruments.

NIOSH’s Science Blog post about the new Sound Level Meter app notes that the app was subjected to the same testing requirements that were established in the NIOSH laboratory study. When used with an external calibrated microphone, the new app measured sound levels within ± 1 dB of the reference type 1 sound level meter over the testing range of 65–95 dB sound pressure level (SPL) in the laboratory.

“While the app is not meant to replace a professional sound level meter or a noise dosimeter or be used for compliance purposes, we recommend that those interested in making proper noise measurements use an external microphone that can be calibrated with an acoustical calibrator for improved accuracy,” NIOSH’s blog post reads.

The app can serve as a practical tool to collect noise exposure data and help workers make informed decisions about potential hazards to their hearing. In addition, NIOSH researchers hope that the app will eventually become a research tool.

“A long-term goal is that this app will become a research tool that people can use for doing workplace surveys,” said Capt. Chucri (Chuck) A. Kardous, MS, PE, a senior research engineer in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology who worked on the app. “Noise surveys are very costly and time-consuming. In Europe they’re doing a lot of work with crowdsourcing environmental noise, and we think this app could work as a crowdsourcing tool for occupational noise. If that kind of technology translates into the workplace, the information could be useful to researchers in the future. For instance, they could crowdsource data fairly easily, quickly, and cheaply instead of having to hang a dosimeter on five workers and follow them for five days.”

The app is only available on iOS devices because NIOSH researchers found that testing and verifying the accuracy and functionality of an Android-based app in the agency’s laboratory is not currently possible. “The Android marketplace is very fragmented,” Kardous explains. “The same circuitry exists in an iPod or an iPad or an iPhone, so we’re able to test something and verify it will work on iOS-type devices. We couldn’t do the same with Android; there are hundreds of devices, and even the same manufacturer will use different parts. For instance, the Samsung that you buy in the U.S. is different than a Samsung that you buy in Japan. We also found out that the microphone elements that they use in the U.S. are different than the ones they use in Asia.”

More information about the app, including a video highlighting its features and a link to download it, is available on NIOSH’s website.

Common Painkillers Don't Ease Back Pain

Painkillers like aspirin, Aleve, and Advil don't help most people with back pain, a new review finds. In a recent study, researchers estimated that only one in six people gained a benefit from taking these nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Meanwhile, previous research has suggested that another common painkiller, Tylenol (acetaminophen), isn't very useful either, the study authors added. The findings raise the prospect that no over-the-counter painkillers really ease back pain, at least in the short term, and some may raise the risk of gastrointestinal problems.

"There are other effective and safer strategies to manage spinal pain," said review author Gustavo Machado. He is a research fellow with the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, Australia.

Back and neck pain are the leading cause of pain worldwide, the researchers said.

For the review, the investigators examined 35 studies on the use of NSAIDs to treat back pain. The studies most commonly examined the drugs ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), cox-2 inhibitors (but not Celebrex) and diclofenac (which is available in the United States, but not widely known).

The studies, which tracked about 6,000 people, "showed that commonly used NSAIDs have only small effects on pain relief and improvement of function," Machado said. "Moreover, these small effects may not be perceived as important for most patients with spinal pain."

The researchers also found that participants taking the drugs were 2.5 times more likely to experience gastrointestinal side effects, compared with those who took inactive placebos. The review only included studies of people who took the drugs for an average of seven days.

"Unfortunately, there are no studies investigating the effects of NSAIDs for spinal pain in the medium-term (three months to 12 months), and the long-term (more than 12 months)," Machado explained.

Dr. Benjamin Friedman is an associate professor of emergency medicine with Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. He estimated that the painkillers might be even more ineffective than the review suggests, with fewer than one in 10 patients getting substantial relief.

What should patients with back pain do? Friedman said he often recommends the drugs even though they're not likely to provide benefits.

"The happiest back pain patients I know are the ones who have found relief with some type of complementary therapy such as yoga, massage, or stretching," Friedman noted.

Study author Machado said, "Patients should discuss with their doctors whether they should take these drugs, considering the small benefits they offer and likelihood of adverse effects." As for whether opioid painkillers—such as Oxycontin—might work, he suggests that patients avoid them for back pain since research by his institute's team has suggested they aren't very effective either.

However, Friedman said they're often prescribed for very brief periods for unbearable pain, along with physical therapy.

As for other suggestions, Machado points to guidelines that recommend patients with back pain remain active and avoid bed rest. "There is also evidence that physical therapies and psychological therapies—such as cognitive behavioral therapy—bring benefits to these patients," he said.

Also, Machado said, "People should focus on preventing back pain in the first place. Having a healthy lifestyle and engaging in physical activities is a very important way of achieving this."

The review was published online February 2 in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

Falls and Struck-By Incidents Lead Work-Related Deaths in North Carolina

Falls and struck-by incidents continue to cause the largest number of work-related deaths statewide based on preliminary information released by the state Department of Labor. Struck-by incidents accounted for the most work-related deaths with 19, while falls accounted for 12 deaths. The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Division inspected 48 work-related deaths last year.

“Year after year, we see falls and struck-by incidents take the lives of too many workers,” Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said. “Falls and struck-bys are especially troubling because we know nearly all these types of workplace accidents can be prevented when proper safety training is coupled with the proper use of personal protective equipment. Seven of last year’s construction deaths involved a fall from a roof. We never lose sight of the fact that these are human lives lost at work, and I take each one personally. These were someone’s husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, and in some cases grandparent. They were best friends and co-workers at an average age of 42 years old.”

The OSH Division tracks work-related deaths that fall within its jurisdictional authority so it can pinpoint where fatalities are occurring and place special emphasis on counties or regions where deaths on the job are happening. By tracking fatalities in real time, the department can also notify particular industries of any concerning patterns or trends identified and issue hazard alerts to warn industry.

“Through years of tracking workplace deaths, we have identified four areas known as the ‘Big Four’ that employers and employees should be mindful of in the workplace,” said Kevin Beauregard, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Division. “Falls, struck-bys, caught-in/ between incidents and electrocutions make up the Big Four and generally account for 80 percent or more of work-related deaths in construction and general industry.”

The OSH Division also partners with businesses and organizations that represent some of the most hazardous industries through partnerships and alliances to heighten industry awareness and assist with education and training.

While fatalities continue to fluctuate, North Carolina’s injury and illness rate has steadily declined since 2001 and dropped to an all-time low of 2.6 per 100 full-time workers in 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles the injury and illness rate data. Based on the most recent data released by the BLS, North Carolina is one of the nation’s top 10 safest states in which to work with a rate statistically lower than the national rate of 3.0.

The construction industry continues to be the most hazardous industry in the state with 19 work-related deaths in 2016, seven more than in 2015. The manufacturing industry had the second highest number of work-related deaths with nine in 2016, a decrease from 11 in 2015. The seven fatalities in the services industry was an increase from five in the previous year.

In addition, agriculture, forestry, and fishing decreased from eight fatalities in 2015 to five in 2016. There were also four fatalities in the transportation and public utility industry, an increase from one in 2015. Government stayed the same at two fatalities. The wholesale trade industry increased from one fatality in 2015 to two in 2016. There were no work-related fatalities in the retail trade industry or the finance, insurance and real estate industry.

There were no work-related fatalities in 77 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Mecklenburg County led with 12 fatalities. Guilford and Rowan experienced four each. Cumberland and Wake experienced three fatalities each. Catawba, Forsyth, Gaston and Robeson experienced two fatalities each. Fourteen counties experienced one fatality.

Whites accounted for 27 of the 48 work-related fatalities. Blacks accounted for 10 and Hispanics for nine. There were two Asians. Men accounted for 44 of the 48 deaths. Women accounted for four workplace deaths.

The state figures exclude certain fatalities that fall outside its jurisdictional authority. These include traffic accidents, which account for nearly half of all work-related deaths, as well as homicides and suicides that are investigated by law enforcement agencies. The count also excludes fatalities investigated by federal OSHA and other exemptions in which the department does not have the authority to investigate, such as on farms with 10 or fewer employees.

County Concrete Corp. Fined $88,544 for Again Exposing Workers to Silica

On January 4, 2017, OSHA issued citations to County Concrete Corp., for one repeat and two failure-to-abate violations.

OSHA conducted an inspection on July 19, 2016, as a follow-up to the settlement of citations the company received in 2013. The agency issued citations to County Concrete in 2013 for 18 safety and health violations, and assessed $153,900 in penalties.

The agency cited the repeated violation because the company again failed to conduct annual tests to ensure that respirators fit employees properly while they were cleaning concrete mixers. Silica exposure can cause serious illnesses and damage to the respiratory system.

The failure-to-abate violations involved the company's failure to:

  • Develop and implement a written respiratory protection program for employees required to wear respirators during concrete mixer cleaning operations
  • Provide medical evaluations for employees required to wear respirators to determine their ability to use them without their health being compromised.

These violations also were previously cited on September 30, 2013.

"Our follow-up inspection found that two County Concrete employees were exposed to silica above the permissible limit as they cleaned concrete mixers. In 2013, OSHA cited this company for these same hazards," said Kris Hoffman, director of OSHA's Parsippany Area Office. "Employers must bear the responsibility of fully complying with respiratory protection requirements to protect the safety and health of their workers."

Proposed penalties total $88,544.

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