Systematically Extracting Metal- and Solvent-Related Occupational Information from Free-Text Responses to Lifetime Occupational History Questionnaires

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Lifetime occupational history (OH) questionnaires often use open-ended questions to capture detailed information about study participants' jobs. Exposure assessors use this information, along with responses to job- and industry-specific questionnaires, to assign exposure estimates on a job-by-job basis. An alternative approach is to use information from the OH responses and the job- and industry-specific questionnaires to develop programmable decision rules for assigning exposures. As a first step in this process, we developed a systematic approach to extract the free-text OH responses and convert them into standardized variables that represented exposure scenarios.


Our study population comprised 2408 subjects, reporting 11991 jobs, from a case-control study of renal cell carcinoma. Each subject completed a lifetime OH questionnaire that included verbatim responses, for each job, to open-ended questions including job title, main tasks and activities (task), tools and equipment used (tools), and chemicals and materials handled (chemicals). Based on a review of the literature, we identified exposure scenarios (occupations, industries, tasks/tools/chemicals) expected to involve possible exposure to chlorinated solvents, trichloroethylene (TCE) in particular, lead, and cadmium. We then used a SAS macro to review the information reported by study participants to identify jobs associated with each exposure scenario; this was done using previously coded standardized occupation and industry classification codes, and a priori lists of associated key words and phrases related to possibly exposed tasks, tools, and chemicals. Exposure variables representing the occupation, industry, and task/tool/chemicals exposure scenarios were added to the work history records of the study respondents. Our identification of possibly TCE-exposed scenarios in the OH responses was compared to an expert's independently assigned probability ratings to evaluate whether we missed identifying possibly exposed jobs.


Our process added exposure variables for 52 occupation groups, 43 industry groups, and 46 task/tool/chemical scenarios to the data set of OH responses. Across all four agents, we identified possibly exposed task/tool/chemical exposure scenarios in 44-51% of the jobs in possibly exposed occupations. Possibly exposed task/tool/chemical exposure scenarios were found in a nontrivial 9-14% of the jobs not in possibly exposed occupations, suggesting that our process identified important information that would not be captured using occupation alone. Our extraction process was sensitive: for jobs where our extraction of OH responses identified no exposure scenarios and for which the sole source of information was the OH responses, only 0.1% were assessed as possibly exposed to TCE by the expert.


Our systematic extraction of OH information found useful information in the task/chemicals/tools responses that was relatively easy to extract and that was not available from the occupational or industry information. The extracted variables can be used as inputs in the development of decision rules, especially for jobs where no additional information, such as job- and industry-specific questionnaires, is available.

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