Risks of Dentistry to Personal Health

Feb. 14, 2014
The report that came out from Business Insider is something everyone in dentistry should pay attention to.1 Dentistry ranked second among the most unhealthy jobs in America.

By Noel Brandon Kelsch, RDHAP

The report that came out from Business Insider is something everyone in dentistry should pay attention to.1 Dentistry ranked second among the most unhealthy jobs in America.

Using the Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network (0*NET), an analysis was done of the six health risks in each of the 974 occupations that the organization follows. Those factors include exposure to contaminants; exposure to disease and infection; exposure to hazardous conditions; exposure to radiation; risk of minor burns, cuts, bites, and stings; and time spent sitting (interestingly, studies show that frequent inactivity shortens your lifespan and increases the risk for colon cancer and other diseases).2 These factors were rated from 0 to 100, with the higher score reflecting an increased health risk.


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The outcome may surprise you. The top 15 in this study have very specific areas that need to be focused on to reduce the health risks. For example, the Refuse and Recyclable Material Collectors job is rated No. 15. Their job is to collect and dump refuse and recycling materials into trucks. Their score was 55.0, and their top three health risks were exposure to contaminants, time spent sitting, and exposure to disease and infections.

When evaluating their job, they need to look closely at the tasks that create these risks. They have a pretty high rate of sitting. Making sure they trade tasks when two people are working on a recycling rig will allow both the operators to have movement and spread out the time sitting between employees. Using personal protective equipment and frequent decontamination could decrease their exposure to contaminants and diseases. Keeping themselves healthy could decrease the number of infections.

Dental health care professionals (DHCP) are truly at risk, ranking No. 2 out of 974 occupations. DHCP really have to embrace all methods of prevention in these areas of risk.

So what are the top three things you can do to lower the risk? See the related sidebar.

As the sidebar indicates, dental professionals spend too much time sitting while working. A resource for looking at sitting habits is called JustStand.org. Some of the statistics that they focus on include:

  • People who sit for more than 11 hours a day have a 40% increased risk of death in the next three years, compared with people who sit for four hours or less.
  • Workers who have held sedentary roles for more than 10 years have twice the risk of colon cancer.
  • The longer people sit, the shorter their lifespan, even if they exercise regularly.
  • Sitting for long periods may also affect the development of musculoskeletal disorders.

The website has a calculator that allows you to see what your specific statistics are.

So how can you reduce these risks in the work environment? While attending the gym and exercising are important, you can add to your day some simple things in the workplace that can also make a difference.

1. Invest in an activity calculator such as a fit-bit that allows you to see how active you are. Then, work to increase your activity. This can be as simple as parking farther away or walking the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Spending part of your lunch period moving can make a big difference.

Between patients, get out of your chair and move. Take the long way to the lab, or walk in place if your office is small. Take the breaks that are required by law (two 15-minute breaks and half-hour lunches in most states). During those breaks move, walk, stand, bend.

2. Alternate positions during patient care. Sit for part of the procedure and stand for another part of the procedure.

3. Visit a physical or occupational therapist and have them give you exercises to do between patients that will help with your sitting challenges. They can develop a program specifically for you.

Dentistry does have its risks, and the Business Insider report has made those risks clear. We all need to pay attention to that report and limit our risks.

Top three health risks for dental professionals

Exposure to disease and infections: 87.8

  1. Know the signs and symptoms of diseases, and do not allow sick patients to sit in your chair unless they are in pain. (If they are in dental pain, isolate them, get them out of pain, and do comprehensive care later.) This includes diseases such as herpetic lesions, common cold, influenza, etc. Do not allow sick staff members to come to work.
  2. Wash your hands frequently. 88% of disease is spread from hand-to-hand contact.
  3. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) properly and change as recommended.3

Exposure to contaminants: 76.2

  1. Wear the proper PPE, including sharps- and chemical-resistant utility gloves. Patient exam gloves are not intended to work with chemicals, and you may be exposing yourself to chemicals that penetrate patient exam gloves.
  2. Limit the use of chemicals: There are many areas in dentistry where we can limit the use of chemicals. Examples include using heat sterilizing instead of processing items in cold sterilization (www.rdhmag.com/articles/print/volume-33/issue-6/columns/cold-sterile.html) and the use of barrier protection instead of cleaning and disinfecting when appropriate (www.rdhmag.com/articles/print/volume-31/issue-7/columns/keeping-surfaces-safe.html).3
  3. Know the label direction for use of chemicals, especially the time-weighted average (how long you can be exposed to a given chemical) and the parameters of use (does it need ventilation, personal protective equipment, etc.).

Time spent sitting: 73.6

This risk is very taxing on the body and most people are not even aware of it. "Sitting disease" is the result of sitting too long, and it has a direct effect on metabolism, as well as the negative impact of an overly sedentary lifestyle. It may not be a diagnosable disease yet, but if you sit the majority of the day and don't balance it out with physical activity, your health could be in jeopardy. Medical research has shown that prolonged sitting increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even death.

NOEL BRANDON KELSCH, RDHAP, is a syndicated columnist, writer, speaker, and cartoonist. She serves on the editorial review committee for the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention newsletter and has received many national awards. Kelsch owns her dental hygiene practice that focuses on access to care for all and helps facilitate the Simi Valley Free Dental Clinic. She has devoted much of her 35 years in dentistry to educating people about the devastating effects of methamphetamines and drug use. She is a past president of the California Dental Hygienists’ Association.


1. 15 Jobs That Are Most Damaging to Your Health.

Business Insider. Andy Kiersz, Max Nisen, Business Insider, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/the-15-jobs-that-are-most-damaging-to-your-health-155706120.html; Accessed 12/2/2013.

2. The ‘Sitting Disease' Is Killing the American Workforce.

U.S. News & World Report. Lindsay Olson, U.S. News & World Report, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-sitting-disease-is-killing-the-american-workforce-2013-8 Accessed 12/2/2013.

3. CDC Guidelines for Infection Control in the Dental Setting, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5217a1.htm

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