Our department is about ... OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH & SAFETY

Professor Noah Seixas and colleagues partnered with a scrap metal recycling business (photo above) and its workers' labor union to define how the company's safety committee can effectively address safety and health issues in this high-hazard environment.

Making "safe" part of high-risk work

Researchers in our department work with industry and labor groups to improve worker safety in high-risk occupational sectors and collaborate with organizations and agencies to reach hard-to-reach populations. Highlighted in this article are some of these efforts across the Pacific Northwest.

More effective safety and health committees in Washington

Several years ago, an unfortunate accident at a scrap metal recycling business left one worker dead and two others maimed. This tragic incident spotlighted the high-risk environment that the employees work in and prompted the company to invest more resources in a safety program.

Professor Noah Seixas, Research Coordinator Carlos Dominguez, former Research Scientist Richard Neitzel (now at the University of Michigan), and Allison Crollard (MS student, Exposure Sciences) partnered with the business and the labor union representing its workers to help define how the company's health and safety committee can better address worksite safety and occupational hazards.

In Washington state, a company with 11 or more employees on the same shift must have a health and safety committee made up of equal numbers of workers and management. Workers' involvement ensures they are engaged in improving their company's health and safety program, explained Crollard, who also has a master's degree in Occupational Health Nursing. "They have the best sense of what the issues are."

Nearly half of the approximately 50 production workers at the company are from Spanish-speaking countries and many have limited English proficiency. Statistics show that immigrant laborers are at greater risk of injury than native-born workers.

The state's guidelines don't define how the health and safety committee operates—how often it meets or for how long. Neither are the members' roles and responsibilities specified, nor are members required to receive training in how to identify hazards. The goal of the UW project was to develop a curriculum and recommendations for a model health and safety committee that similar industries and workplaces could use statewide.

The members of the health and safety committee at the scrap metal recycling business participated in two four-hour bilingual trainings. The first activities, Crollard explained, stressed the importance of communication among committee members and between the committee and company workers and fostered a shared sense of purpose in terms of their individual and collective roles. The training also included information about health and safety research and air, noise, and other measurements the UW team had taken at the company.

The curriculum, recommendations, and exposure assessment results before and after the training will be provided to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, whose Safety and Health Investment Projects grant program funded the 16-month project.

Improving safety for fishermen in Oregon

The Discovery Channel's show, Deadliest Catch, depicts the often harrowing job of Alaskan king crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Dungeness crab fishing along the West Coast is no less deadly. The fishermen work on small vessels in precarious conditions. There are many 16- to 20-hour days, weather can change on a dime, and swells across the treacherous river bar—where the river meets the open ocean—can capsize the 30- to 80-foot boats before the captain or his crew has time to pull on a life vest, explained Gerry Croteau, a research industrial hygienist in our department’s Field Research and Consultation Group (Field Group).

The West Coast Dungeness crab fishery represents one of the most dangerous work environments in the United States; the fatality rate is higher than the Bering Sea crab fishery. From 2003–2009, 14 deaths were recorded. None of the victims was wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), and most of the fatalities (79 percent) resulted from capsized vessels while crossing river bars or when fishing near shore.

To improve safety and to better understand the views and experiences of the Dungeness crab fishermen, Croteau, along with a team of researchers, surveyed commercial crab fishermen in Oregon on their practices and asked them to field-test five different PFDs. The researchers included members of the Field Group, Erika Zoller from the Oregon Health & Science University, and Jennifer Lincoln from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Alaska Field Station.

The research team identified PFD use, safety training and on-board safety drills, and a better understanding of vessel stability as key to reducing fatality and injury rates. Vessel stability can be affected by how the boat is loaded with fishing gear, changes in balance caused by hauling a heavy catch back to port, or fishing operations that introduce a substantial load to one side of the vessel.

Many captains and crew members do not regularly wear life vests despite the high risk. Survey results showed that almost 70 percent of the participants do not regularly practice on-board safety drills, and nearly half of crew members have not received safety training. The US Coast Guard recently distributed a handout to Oregon fishermen on fishermen-recommended PFDs that was developed by the Field Group. Croteau said other findings from the report will be distributed to fishermen in a format they can use.

The project is sponsored by our department's Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, which focuses on reducing work-related injury, illness, and death in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector. The Center is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Safe cleanup in rural Alaska

Mike Willis, the acting director of our Continuing Education Programs, has been organizing trainings with the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council for a number of years. The Council is an Indigenous grassroots organization, consisting of 70 First Nations and Tribes dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Yukon River Watershed. The enormous area includes a large swath of Alaska and a portion of Canada.

Three years ago the partnership grew into a formal training program that provides the Council's backhaul workers with skills in safe and effective waste management and disposal.

In October, Clarence Alexander, a co-founder of the Council, received the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama. The second highest civilian honor in the Unites States, the award recognized Alexander's role in the work being done by the Council and his efforts to lead the closure of open-burning dumps and the removal or recycling of millions of pounds of waste.

It is the Council's backhaul workers who clean up garbage on the water's shores, then characterize, package, and ship it on barges to a landfill. The certificate program offered by our Continuing Education Programs consists of 8–10 courses that range from one to three days in length. Chuck Mitchell teaches the hazardous waste operations and emergency response standard (HAZ-WOPER) and first-aid and CPR courses, and John Wolfe trains workers in oil spill response and hazardous materials transport.

Support for the training comes from the US Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.