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Logo of oenvmedOccupational and Environmental MedicineVisit this articleSubmit a manuscriptReceive email alertsContact usBMJ
Occup Environ Med. 2007 December; 64(12): e46.
PMCID: PMC2095357

Keynote on: Future of occupational epidemiology

252 The prospects for occupational epidemiology

J. Siemiatycki. University of Montreal

In the l960s and 1970s occupational epidemiology was one of the most fertile and exciting areas of epidemiological research. Over the past 20 years, occupational epidemiology has declined as regards its relative share of the “epidemiological pie”. There are many reasons for this. The changing industrial and occupational structure of developed countries, impelled in part by globalisation and in part by technological advances, has lessened the perceived need for occupational epidemiology. A decline in numbers of unionised workers has reduced the influence of labour unions and both the demand for such research and the pressure to do it. The attitudes and priorities of young people have changed over time, which has lessened their interest in this area compared with the youth of the 1960s and 1970s. The impact of the bioethics movement has been very deleterious for epidemiology, with many types of research design becoming too difficult to carry out in many jurisdictions. There have been considerable improvements in the industrial hygiene conditions of many industries, thanks in part to past epidemiological research. While this is undoubtedly good news for some workers, it has served to lessen the urgency of epidemiological research. One of the insidious influences on occupational epidemiology is the acrimonious climate of ad hominem attacks that has too often accompanied disagreements about particular scientific issues. While this climate is the result of complex dynamics, the phenomenon is partly fed by lack of public funding for occupational epidemiology and the frequent absence of solid and clearly understood firewalls between funders and researchers. Such a climate is not only unpleasant but has the perverse effect of driving people away from the topic. However, this area remains important from a public health point of view. Millions of workers in developed and developing countries alike are exposed to situations whose hazards are not well understood. Further, the methodology of exposure assessment, an important methodological hurdle in the past, has improved tremendously. There are many obstacles, but the potential to contribute is so great that these obstacles must be overcome.

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