The U.S. workforce lost 407 million days of work to illness in 2005, and workers without paid time off to see a physician were more likely to report missing work. That’s a lot of days — but that number would probably be much higher if it weren’t for some fundamental innovations in medicine.
The industrial workers that Labor Day was meant to honor still deal with more physical occupational hazards than the office-dwelling folk, the most common among them being muscle strains and sprains, cuts and punctures, and pain. As we salute the labor force today, let’s also take a moment on Labor Day 2012 to hail these and other medical innovations that have made life better for the modern working man and woman.
Aspirin, 1899: Plants containing salicylic acid were used to relieve pain and fever in ancient times, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Felix Hoffman, a German chemist at Bayer, modified it into a drug that led to widespread, modern use for arthritis, headaches and pain, all common occupational complaints of industrial workers. Its popularity declined in the 1950s and ’60s with the advent of ibuprofen and paracetamol, but studies in the years following established its anticlotting properties.
Antibiotics, 1929: Although the search for antibiotics began in the late 1800s as the germ theory of disease took hold, Alexander Fleming’s key discovery that the mold Penicillium notatum destroyed Staphylococcus aureus didn’t happen until 1928. The large-scale manufacturing process was discovered in the 1940s, and since then, antimicrobial drugs in their various forms have become a standard treatment for wound infections, tuberculosis, pneumonia and other infections. They’ve become such a staple that resistance to them has triggered a wave of innovation in detection, prevention and drugs.
Influenza vaccine, 1940s: The first experimental flu vaccines emerged in the 1930s and were used by the U.S. military during World War II. Today, the flu shot is associated with reduced illness, physician visits and work absenteeism. The Visiting Nurse Association estimates that flu shots save employers an average $46 per employee in time off.
Breast pump, 1956: Australian inventors patented a mechanical milker during a labor shortage right before the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t engineered into a device for humans until 60 years later. And even then, it was a big, heavy device used mostly for mothers of sick babies — personal-use, carry-in-your-purse pumps that women could bring along to the workplace weren’t common until the mid-1990s.
Worksite medical clinics, 2008: OK, so these have been around in manufacturing and industrial employers for much longer, but they’ve recently become mainstream in large and smaller companies as a way to save on healthcare costs. Many of them, like ones at Prudent Financial and Toyota, now provide more comprehensive care not just for job injuries but for overall employee health, stocking prescription drugs, doing basic lab tests and facilitating wellness programs.