Students document workplace health risks on Wikipedia amidst global pandemic

Are you familiar with occupational epidemiology? It’s the study of whether working conditions are safe for workers. As workplaces determine whether or not it’s safe to open up facilities again and resume “normal” work amidst a global pandemic, organization leaders are ideally making these important decisions with science and employee safety in mind.

Public health students in Tania Carreon-Valencia and Thais Morata’s course at the University of Cincinnati exercised their science communication muscles this spring as they added worker health and workplace safety information to Wikipedia. These topics are at the forefront of our collective consciousness right now as we contemplate (locally and globally) what “returning to work” looks like. And Wikipedia has proven to be a valuable resource during the pandemic as the world seeks updates on what to do.

While there may not be lots of peer-reviewed research yet about the effects of the pandemic on essential workers, it’s still worth keeping these topics up to date as information becomes available. Being aware of the risks of dental aerosols (a new Wikipedia page created by one of these students) might cause workplaces to contemplate how else coronavirus can spread and take precautions for reducing the risk. As this new page will inform you, the instruments that dentists use to probe and clean your teeth create aerosols that can pose a risk to clinicians and other patients. These dental aerosols even have the possibility to transmit diseases by spreading viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. This is why on March 16th, 2020, the American Dental Association advised dentists to postpone all elective procedures. This student’s work has already been viewed more than 1,300 times, showing that even seemingly obscure topics can fill the information needs of many.

Another student improved the Wikipedia page about incident stress—the behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms a frontline worker might experience after experiencing something traumatic on the job. While there is no method that is completely effective for preventing incident stress, there are ways to reduce its impact on the affected person. Possible steps to maintaining on-site health include maintaining nutrition and rest; limiting exposure to further stimuli, like noise; whether or not an employer is prepared to respond to cases of incident stress; and more. These steps are now captured in the corresponding Wikipedia page in a brand new section about “prevention” thanks to a student.

And the Wikipedia page about shift work sleep disorder, which consistently receives about 150 views a day, saw quite a few improvements in April. The disorder causes adverse health effects in people whose work schedule disrupts their typical sleeping patterns. A student added that it often goes undiagnosed and that the health effects include increased risk of bone fractures, low fertility, obesity, diabetes, decreased immune functioning, and negative effects on mental health. The page now also makes clear that sleep deprivation may lead to medical errors, workplace accidents, and low productivity. And it includes more methods through which decreased sleep quality can be assessed. The page has received 10,000 visits since this student made these changes.

The Wikipedia writing assignment was internationally recognized as an important tool for science communication around public health by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2019. NIOSH recognizes that Wikipedia makes research “usable” for the general public and lauds the site for policies that make information verifiable for readers. When Wikipedia is one of the leading sources for medical information out there, making sure that information is rooted in the latest science is hugely important. And students are great folks to do that work (with the assistance of their expert instructors and our Wikipedia training materials). Let’s make sure workers know their rights and that employers are up to date on science that can best prepare them to make positive decisions for their employees.

Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia writing assignment into a future course? Visit for all you need to know to get started. And here are some tips for incorporating the assignment into a virtual course.

Thumbnail image by Gmihail, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 RS).


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