School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington - Spr/Sum 2008
STUDENTS AND THE SCIENCE OF EXPOSURE
Rick Neitzel measures heavy equipment noise in the logging industry. Photo by Marc Beaudreau.
Noise induced hearing loss is a classic public health problem—the disease is irreversible and progressive, but 100% preventable. Graduate student Rick Neitzel has a passion for the topic.
He first came to the University of Washington in 1996, after finishing a bachelor's degree in Safety from the University of Southern California. His master's thesis at UW was on occupational noise exposures in four construction trades. Since then, he has been a research scientist with Professor Noah Seixas, investigating a variety of occupational health and safety issues, including causes of hearing loss among construction workers.
His love of applied academic research led him into the PhD program in Environmental and Occupational Hygiene. He expects to complete his doctorate next June. His dissertation finds him in the field, improving methods for assessing occupational exposures in dynamic industries such as construction, as well as evaluating the success of interventions designed to increase workers' awareness of occupational hazards.
Workers are sometimes reluctant to put on ear plugs or ear muffs, for fear that they won't be able to hear crucial warning sounds on a construction site. The problem would be straightforward if there were an easy way to say "now it's loud enough to put on my hearing protection." An effective prediction method also would help companies know which workers should be in a hearing conservation program.
Neitzel says his research has shown that construction workers have a reasonably good sense of how loud their surroundings are. (This isn't true of other types of occupational exposure, such as radiation or air pollution, which aren't readily detectable by humans.) His next step will be to try to use workers' perceived noise levels to develop more accurate and precise estimates of occupational noise exposure.
Neitzel is passionate about preventing hearing loss. It is the most prevalent workplace hazard, and may cost billions of dollars annually in workers' compensation claims, he says. It also robs workers of many of life's enjoyments, and may put them at risk of accidents.
Neitzel is also interested in the effects of nonoccupational noise. He once took a television reporter on a tour of Seattle's noisiest spots for a news feature titled, "What's that? Can't hear you, my iPod's too loud." He is also working with Columbia University to measure noise levels in New York City's subways, buses, and trains, and to estimate the risk of hearing loss to riders of these transit systems.
As a testament to his standing in the field, Neitzel has been selected as the chief editor of the new edition of The Noise Manual, the standard text on noise and hearing conservation, published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He plans to start his editorship when he finishes his dissertation. He is also president-elect of the National Hearing Conservation Association, and serves on the American Industraial Hygiene Association's noise committee.
He and Professor Seixas are eight years into a longitudinal cohort study—the type that can yield rare insights into behaviors and preventive measures. They started with a class of construction apprentices and have followed them into their careers. Every year they meet with the workers to measure hearing changes and find out what kind of work they have been doing.
A parallel project measured noise levels for various tasks in a dozen construction trades. This study led to an educational campaign to let workers and bosses know which tasks were the loudest. The brochures for both workers and supervisors are on the Occupational Noise and Hearing Conservation website that Neitzel helped design. The website also includes a hearing conservation training program that he, Professor Seixas, and other UW faculty developed and are currently evaluating.
Amy Sly in front of a dry dock where Washingtonstate ferries are repaired. Photo by Philip Dovinh.
Last November one of our recent graduates, Amy Sly, made history when she became the first woman to be certified as a Marine Chemist by the National Fire Protection Association.
Sly came to our program with a bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Seattle University. She earned her master's degree in Industrial Hygiene and Safety in 2006, studying with Assistant Professor J. Scott Meschke. Her thesis focused on techniques for concentrating bioaerosols (airborne suspensions of particles derived from living organisms) for study in public health laboratories.
Her interest in marine chemistry took her into a tiny subspecialty of the already specialized world of industrial hygienists. There are fewer that 100 certified marine chemists in the country, and she holds the 706th license ever granted. The small cadre specializes in the health and safety of shipyard and maritime industry workers.
Sly has joined her father, Don Sly, in his business, Sound Testing, Inc., of West Seattle. She joined a team of three other marine chemists who delve into machinery spaces, fuel tanks, and other dangerous worksites to identify hazards that could spell disaster during ship repair processes. These hazards include harmful chemicals, acute physical dangers, and concentrated heat.
Sly says her work is both important and interesting because, traditionally, ship repair has ranked among the most dangerous manufacturing workplaces in American industry. In the industry, concentrated heat from welding and cutting torches; toxic solvents from painting, refrigeration, and cargoes; heavy loads; and high electrical charges all combine to make a most challenging work atmosphere. This is the environmental where marine chemists—as well as the repair crew—make their living.
Because repairs aboard marine vessels are by nature brief and intense, the workplace unsuitable, and the workforce transient, she says, safety professionals do a lot of training, need to communicate among crafts and management, and must be diligent in their supervision and monitoring.
As a Marine Chemist, Sly says she makes many decisions affecting real-time worker safety in a complicated industrial environment.
Although occupational diseases had been known for centuries, the profession of industrial hygiene traces its roots to 1914, when what is now known as the Occupational Health Section of the American Public Health Association was formed.
These were followed, about 15 years later, by the profession's two most active organizations, The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).
The AIHA defines industrial hygiene as the "science and art devoted to the recognition, evaluation, and control of those environmental factors or stresses, arising in or from the work place, which may cause sickness, impaired health and well-being, or significant discomfort and inefficiency among workers or among the citizens of the community."
There has long been debate about the best name for the profession. "Industrial hygiene," "occupational health," and "environmental health" all have their adherents.
Last year, our department's Industrial Hygiene faculty reorganized the master's degree in Industrial Hygiene into one called the Master of Science in Occupational and Environmental Exposure Sciences. The new name better represents the current content and professional practice of this discipline, said program director Mike Yost.
Occupational hygiene remains one of four learning emphasis areas. The others are ergonomics and human factors, health and safety management, and exposure biomarkers.
Smyth, HF Jr. The American Board of Industrial Hygiene. American Journal of Public Health 1966; 56(7):1120-1127.