Dictionaries as well as legislation generally define occupational hazards in terms of risks that are inherent in certain types of employment or workplaces such as deep-sea diving, cutting timber, mining, high-rise steel construction, high-voltage electrical wiring, using pesticides, and painting bridges. From the perspective of the social sciences, however, occupational hazards are less an issue of inherent dangers in certain types of work than an issue of the dangers that arise from (1) structural conditions, in particular power imbalances between employees and bosses (2) poor working conditions, such as double shifts or overcrowding (3) inappropriate demands made on unsuitable employees, such as children (4) insufficient monitoring of workplace safety.

Work-related risks and illnesses throughout time have been shaped by the forces that shape the nature of work itself. Changing modes of production, shifting economic powers, and demographic changes in the workforce all impact who is injured at work, how and why the injury occurred, and to what extent—if at all—the injury is recognized and acknowledged.

Considering that almost all humans work either inside or outside the home for most of their lives, the field of occupational health has received relatively little attention from the medical profession. Occupational physician Michael Gochfeld notes that medical writers as early as Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 BCE) and Galen (c. 129-216 CE) sporadically acknowledged links between health problems and specific occupations (typically mining). The emerging public health movement in the mid-nineteenth century addressed the overall unhealthy living and working conditions of immigrants and slum dwellers. It was only with the rise of labor unions in the early twentieth century that significant legislative and medical notice has been given to occupational hazards.

Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, definitions of, responses to, and compensation for occupational injuries continue to be highly contentious. In the United States, for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with enforcing safety and health legislation, is considered by many to be underfunded and understaffed (employing less than 2,200 inspectors for over 7 million workplaces). According to industrial hygienist Lisa Cullen, OSHA is as likely to protect the "corporations responsible for maiming and sickening workers" as it is to protect the workers themselves.

In the United States, foreign-born workers increased 22 percent from 1996 to 2000, while fatal injuries among foreign-born workers increased by 43 percent, according to a 2004 analysis published in Monthly Labor Review. Oftentimes, the injuries sustained by foreign-born workers are not reported by employers who wish to avoid paying workers compensation benefits. Injuries may also not be reported by workers who are unaware of American policies concerning injuries on the job or fear deportation in the case that they are undocumented. Vernon Mogensen (2005) shows that pursuant to free-market globalization, "The outsourcing of jobs from high-wage to low-wage locales has the effect of transferring relatively safe jobs from developed countries, where safety standards and trade unions are well-established, to more dangerous locales like China, where bonded-, prison-, and child labor is abundant, but both safety and health enforcement and free-trade unions are virtually nonexistent."

As economies have shifted from industrial to post-industrial and from local to global, public and legislative notions of occupational hazards have not kept pace. A popular tendency to focus on dramatic occupational hazards such as coal mining or sky-scraper construction may obfuscate the many occupational settings that are permeated by illness-inducing substances (e.g., chemical pollutants) or job tasks that demand repetitive motions that can cause injury over time. The perils involved in long days spent looking at computer monitors and typing are not the stuff of cinema heroics, but they have become among the most common hazards of the post-industrial workplace. Injuries and illnesses resulting from work in the rapidly expanding service sector are good examples of occupational hazards that rarely merit financial compensation. Nurses’ aids often suffer back injuries as a cumulative result of lifting patients, telemarketers experience stress and depression from the steady stream of insults from people they are assigned to call, and the growth of all-night businesses means that more workers are exposed to the hazards of disrupted sleep cycles. For the most part, these conditions are not recognized either via workers’ compensation legislation or in the public eye as "official" occupational hazards.

The definition of what constitutes a "workplace" is far from uncontested. Anthropologist and historian Harriet Rosenberg argues that all three aspects of women’s domestic labor—housework, motherwork, and wife-work—contain potential risks ranging from heavy lifting to lack of sleep and marital rape, yet illness and injury arising from domestic labor are rarely compensated for or even recognized as injuries on the job.

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