This blog was written by Jamie Schenk, MPH, Finalist of the 2016 3M New Occupational Health and Safety Professional Essay Award contest. Jamie is a Scientist in Exponent’s Health Sciences Center for Occupational & Environmental Health Risk Assessment. This essay was prepared or accomplished by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the 3M or the 3M Personal Safety Division.
If you’d like more information on our Occupational Health & Safety New Professional Essay Award program, visit the 3M New Professional Award Page.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – The landscape of occupational health has greatly advanced due to advancements in science and technology. Over the past two decades, emerging investigative technologies have allowed for greater understanding of occupational health hazards and mitigation (University of Washington, 2016). Advancements in technology to gather data to understand occupational health allow researchers and policymakers to enforce standards that better protect worker health and safety. Development in automation, further mechanization, new materials, and implementation of biotechnology on a large scale reduce harmful waste and reduced impact on workers.
One area of advancement of technology that can greatly impact the future directions of the understanding of occupational health is the advancement of health monitoring and evaluating data to better understand occupational exposures. A cutting edge field of analysis that encapsulates these concepts is the exposome. An emerging concept from the Human Genome Project, the exposome is an umbrella term used to define the measure of all exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures related to health (NIOSH, 2014). Studying the exposome to characterize and quantify occupational exposures has and will continue to positively contribute to the study of occupational health and safety utilizing a more comprehensive scope than the Human Genome Project.
The Human Genome Project was an important endeavor in scientific and medical advancement and history. Because of this Project, scientists were able to sequence the entire human genome, to locate human genes, and to provide information about their structure and organization (NIH, 2016). The Human Genome Project capitalized on advancements in technology in order to accomplish its goals, from rapid sequencing techniques to methods of handling vast data sets to a reduction of cost in DNA sequencing (Gwynne & Page, 2000; Wild, 2012). Major technological advances have increased knowledge of the role genetics have played in occupational diseases, allowing for the evaluation of relationships of disease with individual genes and the genome (CDC, 2009). By utilizing genetic information and other factors that contribute to occupational morbidity and mortality, greater measures can be implemented to prevent occupational disease.
Because of the Human Genome Project, it has been determined that only 10% of diseases are attributed solely to genetic causes. Therefore, environmental factors play a role in the manifestation of 90% of diseases. The exposome is comprised of the analysis of internal processes, specific external exposures, and wider social, economic, and psychological influence on the individual (Wild, 2012). These environmental factors also include occupational exposures such as workplace exposure to arsenic or benzene (Wild, 2012). Genomic information must be linked with environmental information to accurately characterize the gene-environment interactions in order to capitalize on the importance and value of genetic information (Omenn, 2005). By providing a comprehensive description of lifelong exposure history, the exposome complements the genome (Wild, 2012). Studying the exposome is critical to the study and future directions of occupational health.
The exposome can be further studied on different “omic” levels. The study of “omics” ranges from genomics, focusing on the genome, to proteomoics, focusing on a large set of proteins, and even metabolomics, focusing on large sets of small molecules. The study of “omics” allows for greater understanding of basic biological processes, diseases, prevention, and therapeutic solutions. Exposomic technologies are emerging (Wild, 2012). Some examples of technologies used in exposomic research include sensor technologies, portable computerized devices, and improved conventional measurements working in tandem with environmental measures (Wild, 2012). A major advantage of “omic” technologies “is that it will enable researchers to look at the complete complement of genes, its expression and regulation, proteins and metabolites” (p. 7; Vlaanderen et al., 2010). “Omics” techniques will lead to numerous insights in the future through “the development of validated technologies, appropriate study designs, better sample handling and advanced statistical methods for data interpretation” and will illustrate the true interactions between the environment and human health (p. 8-9; Vlaanderen et al., 2010). These fields of study greatly characterize the environment we live in and are particularly helpful in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the work environment.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified three priority areas for studying the occupational exposome, which further support the importance of technology in improving occupational and safety health outcomes. These three priorities areas include: investment in and exploration of new technologies and tools to measure internal and external exposures, molecular epidemiology studies to determine associations between exposures and disease, and developing and validating biomonitoring techniques for both legacy and response monitoring (NIOSH, 2014).
New technologies have allowed for greater biomarker research in the occupational setting. Biomarkers are measurements using biological tissues that give information about exposure, effect of exposure, or susceptibility (CDC, 2009). The development and advancement of technology “in biomarkers, personal monitors, imaging etc., offer ways to construct the exposome with increasing completeness: (p. 30; Wild, 2012). The occupational setting has played a pivotal role in contributing to significant role in advancements in “refining conventional measurements through a more detailed consideration of the exposure scenario. Examples include improved job-exposure matrices in occupational settings incorporating workplace measurements” (p. 28; Wild, 2012).
The implementation of exposomic research has introduced a paradigm shift in how we research, analyze, and understand occupational health. By characterizing workplace exposures using a more holistic approach, researchers will be able to have a better understanding of the true occupational exposures that impact human health. Greater precision in the quantification of exposures through technological advancements has positively contributed to these advancements, introducing a modern and progressive approach to studying occupational health and safety. The development of new technologies plays an essential role in paving the way for safer workplaces worldwide.