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Work-Related Injuries, Illnesses for Astronauts Echo Those for Railroad Workers

Like a majority of Americans, I was saddened when the last-ever mission of the U.S. space shuttle program ended as the Atlantis touched down in Florida (FL) on July 21, 2011. More recently, I was surprised to learn that our country has not only lost its means for traveling into space for at least 6 years, but that America's astronaut corps is also in critical danger of, if not extinction,  at least being unable to undertake missions deemed critical to the country's scientific understanding.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, NASA's 61-person astronaut corps is rapidly aging and dealing with an array of chronic and sometimes inexplicable health problems. The combination leaves many of the highly specialized men and women unavailable for current deployments to the International Space Station and likely to retire before the United States fully reenters the space exploration arena in 2017 or later.

"Thirteen astronauts have become medically ineligible for long-duration missions after being assigned to a mission but before they could actually fly," the NAS wrote in a press release highlighting findings from a 2011 report titled The Role and Training of NASA Astronauts in the Post-Shuttle Era. "Also, due to a variety of medical conditions including vision problems, bone loss, physical injuries, or radiation exposure, not all astronauts returning from long-duration missions will requalify for ISS missions."

Newspaper articles clarified that the vision problems for astronauts had no known cause but made it difficult for the affected men and women to focus and left them with hard-to-relieve headaches. The Denver Post also noted that "bulky suits have forced five crew members in the past 18 months to undergo shoulder surgery and led to 26 injuries to the elbow or shoulder that have required rehabilitation."

More than distress, though, I felt a slow-dawning sense of recognition as I read about the work-related injuries and illnesses astronauts have been experiencing. It became obvious to me as a Virginia and Carolina FELA attorney that the health risks and outcomes for astronauts are quite similar to those for railroad workers.

Like astronauts, rail employees are often exposed to unhealthy doses of radiation. Railroaders, again like astronauts, have high risks for suffering shoulder and arm injuries on the job. Those risks have only increased as the use of remote control vests has grown in rail yards across the nation. Even vision problems afflict railroad workers who regularly encounter particles and fumes that can damage and irritate their eyes.

There are, of course, thousands of times more rail employees than the 61 people currently constituting the U.S. astronaut corps. But railroaders' numbers cannot be used as an excuse by rail corporations for taking employees' health and well-being any less seriously than NASA must take the health of astronauts.

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