Recognizing Occupational Disease — Taking an Effective Occupational History

MICHAEL B. LAX, M.D., M.P.H., and WILLIAM D. GRANT, ED.D.,
Central New York Occupational Health Clinical Center,
State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse, Syracuse, New York
FEDERICA A. MANETTI, M.D., M.S.,
Syracuse, New York
ROSEMARY KLEIN, M.S., C-ANP, COHN-S,
Central New York Occupational Health Clinical Center,
State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse, Syracuse, New York

Occupational exposures contribute to the morbidity and mortality of many diseases. However, occupational diseases continue to be underrecognized even though they are responsible for an estimated 860,000 illnesses and 60,300 deaths each year. Family physicians can play an important role in improving the recognition of occupational disease, preventing progressive illness and disability in their own patients, and contributing to the protection of other workers similarly exposed. This role can be maximized if physicians raise their level of suspicion for workplace disease, develop skills in taking occupational histories and establish routine access to occupational health resources.

The patient with a possibly work-related illness frequently seeks care initially from a family physician. The physician’s recognition of a possible link between work and disease often determines the diagnostic tests that are performed and the treatment that is recommended. Early diagnosis of an occupational illness may prevent progressive morbidity and disability from conditions such as occupational asthma and may facilitate the reversal of adverse effects from exposures to substances such as lead.1 The identification of an occupational illness in one patient also provides the physician with an opportunity to protect other patients with similar exposures.2 Since much remains to be learned about the effects of toxins on health, the family physician is in a crucial position to contribute new information about occupational disease.

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