Thursday, July 20, 2017

Students Participate in Interdisciplinary Training: Policy Roundtables Op-Ed 2

Student Op-Ed #2 

Roundtable Session: “Effects of Minimum Wage Policies on the Health of Workers” featuring Dr. Paul Leigh, an economist from the University of California, Davis, on November 9, 2016.

A few years ago, I had a discussion with an old high school friend who worked as a barista during the day, a restaurant chef in the evening, and a full-time babysitter on the weekends. He did not attend college and was working jobs that paid him a low hourly wage without any health benefits or paid time off. He told me about the economic burdens he faced after his parent’s mutual agreement to separate near the end of high school, the lingering physical disabilities after his mother’s car accident a year after, as well as the responsibility to provide for his three younger siblings. Although his dream after high school was to further his education in college, he felt responsible to place the needs of his family first by providing them with food and shelter. When I asked him how he was doing, he quietly said, “I am doing okay. I wish I didn’t have to work multiple part-time jobs, that I could find one that would hire me full time, provide me with health benefits, and have reasonable hours. I needed to make the money, so I took jobs that would be flexible with my other jobs.”

I wasn’t convinced he was doing okay. His facial expressions were more pensive and reserved compared to the classmate I knew who was outgoing and bright in high school. After our talk many years ago, I often think back about whether work stress and low-wage contributed to any health or health behaviors he experienced.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers gathered on November 9th in Seattle, WA for informal discussions on how employment characteristics and working conditions influence health. The group speaker, Dr. Paul Leigh, presented his research on mechanisms explaining how low wages result in poor health or health behaviors. These mechanisms include decreased self-esteem, job satisfaction, insufficient funds, time loss from work, reduced life expectancy, and poor health, all resulting from low wages. Dr. Leigh went on to bring attention to the overwhelming amount of scientific studies providing support to both sides of an argument. Which should we believe? How do studies get traction? What is the power of data? These questions highlight the fact that data isn’t enough to make positive changes anymore. We must appeal to people’s emotions through personal stories and specific examples to make change. We need to appeal to what is morally right, not just what is logistically correct.

Low wages resulting in poor health or health behaviors can affect all occupations.

Researchers in occupational health services research (OHSR) focus on bridging concepts of income inequality and worker health and health behaviors by implementing, evaluating, and disseminating policies that address both individual and population level health needs for all workers. An important part of OHSR is the ability to study the relationships between various social determinants of health and the effect on overall health and health behaviors. The ability to address differences in risk factors such as health insurance coverage, the distance to the nearest medical facility or provider, and the availability of certain medical services act as major economic and social barriers that disproportionately affect individuals who already lack much financial control in their workplace. Conducting research in workers’ compensation systems and reimbursements for work-related injuries and illnesses is an example of work in this field.

UW Center for One Health Research
The One Health at the Human Animal Interface (OHHAI)discipline at the University of Washington is interested in the interaction of animal and human health. Animal workers are employed in various settings such as farms, aquariums, and clinics (veterinarians), among others, and face biological, chemical, physical and mental hazards (including high physical and emotional stress levels) that can be exacerbated by low wages. Low wage positions in this line of work tend to be filled by workers with less education and experience, thus increasing injury potential while working with animals. Animal workers may experience depression and compassion fatigue when animals die, and when coupled with low wages may lead to poor health behaviors as coping mechanisms.

Occupational health nurses (OHN) play a role in ensuring the safety and health of workers in their jobs. These measures extend from monitoring worker health by conducting blood tests to assess exposure to toxic chemicals, to conducting research on the effects of workplace exposure through the collection of health and hazard data. The focus on low wages as determinants of health helps enrich the field of OHN by extending research beyond the immediate workplace and into the economic conditions that shape it. This enriches the OHN field by furthering the perspective that workplace conditions are social determinants of health.

Conversations about health and low wages have not been sufficiently addressed in Seattle. Dr. Leigh’s presentation and the discussion it sparked with members of the broader community, including union organizers, city officials, business representatives, and academia, marks the emergence of a new approach towards discussing and addressing occupational health issues.

Students Participate in Interdisciplinary Training: Policy Roundtables Op-Ed 1

During the 2016-2017 academic year, NWCOHS trainees participated in “Work & Health” policy roundtables organized through a collaboration between the West Coast Poverty Center, the Harry Bridges Centerfor Labor Studies, Center for the Study of Health in Public Policy, and the Northwest Center for Occupational Health & Safety.  These policy roundtables convened researchers, practitioners, and policymakers for informal discussions on how work, working conditions, and employment characteristics influence health, as well as the connections between health, productivity, and economic sustainability. The goals of these roundtables were to stimulate broad thinking and to create networks between academic and community leaders with interests in these arenas.  Three policy roundtables were conducted.

NWCOHS trainees were assigned to interdisciplinary teams (comprised of trainees representing programs in Construction Management Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Hygiene (Exposure Sciences), Occupational Health at the Human Animal Interface, Occupational Health Nursing, Occupational Health Services Research, and Occupational Medicine) and wrote op-eds about the policy roundtable they attended. We will be sharing the op-eds in a series of posts! (author names have been removed for confidentiality).

Student Op-Ed 1
Roundtable Session: “Effects of Minimum Wage Policies on the Health of Workers”
Dr. Paul Leigh, an economist from the University of California, Davis, on November 9, 2016.

Dr. Paul Leigh
The impact of low wages may extend beyond an individual’s wallet. As an immediate impact, low-wage earners may have insufficient funds for healthy food, shelter, and healthcare. Long-term, low wages may result in low self-esteem, which in turn can have negative health effects. Low wages mitigate the price of lost work, thus reducing incentives to make healthy decisions and such avoid missed work. Despite this, low wages plague workers across several sectors.

For example, animal workers in the US may include agricultural workers (farm workers and workers in slaughterhouses or meat processing plants), animal control officers, veterinarians and their support staff, keepers and caretakers in zoos and aquariums, and even animal trainers in Hollywood. Nearly without exception, these workers suffer from low wages and inadequate benefits. The poverty rate for farm workers, including those in crop agriculture, is nearly double the national rate, and benefits are rarely provided.  Animal control workers, who are required to maintain licensure for their work, average under $17 per hour. Veterinary technicians earn less than half the wages of registered nurses ($31,070 versus $66,640). Zookeepers on average make $11.71 per hour, and animal trainers in the entertainment industry are often only paid while on set, “volunteering” their time to provide basic animal husbandry.

The pattern of wage reduction is not exclusive to agriculture and animal industries. US workers in manufacturing environments are prone to the negative health effects associated with low wages. The median hourly rate for a production worker ranges from $9-18 per hour, depending on the type industry and level of experience. Low wages have a negative effect on the psychological and physical   Workers who have low wages have lower job security and may move from job to job more often. This is a problem as unfamiliarity with a work process increases the risk of being injured on the job. The results of workers being in poorer physical health can lead to them getting behind on work, missing more days of work, and even losing their job, which can further increase disparities. Health of workers in manufacturing workplaces, which leads to decreased job performance as well as an increase in the number of on-the-job injuries. This results from employees engaging in unsafe work practices, such as taking shortcuts in processes to save time, not following safety rules or guidelines, having decreased judgement, as well as being distracted and disconnected from their work.

As a nation, we should broach this topic with empathy. Moreover, we need to consider our own personal professional experiences regarding what we value in a working environment. Would we feel comfortable sending our children to a low-wage job knowing the financial, safety, and health stresses imposed upon them? As occupational safety and health graduate students, we call upon US employers and policymakers to take a stronger stance on employment practices, which impact the financial stability and well-being of our workforce. Although our country’s businesses have become a highly charged political topic regarding their economic competitiveness on the world stage, lowering wages in order to remain relevant and profitable is not a sustainable or ethical solution. Moreover, it devalues our workforce’s contribution. All economic sectors, including the aforementioned manufacturing and agriculture industries, must consider the moral, financial, and sustainability benefits of wage increases.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

DEOHS Adjunct Faculty Member Quoted - Phthalates in Your Mac and Cheese

Dr. Sathyanarayana 
Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, DEOHS Adjunct Associate Professor and Co-director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in Region X, was quoted in the recent New York Times article, Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese on July 12, 2017.

Potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates have been banned from children's teething rings and rubber duck toys for over a decade, but have been found in high concentrations in macaroni and cheese mixes using powdered cheese.

According to recent research conducted by Dr. Sathyanarayana, early childhood exposure to phthalates could be linked to neurodevelopment and behavioral problems in young children such as aggression, hyperactivity, and possible cognitive delays. For those who are concerned over exposure to phthalates she suggests avoiding processed foods if you are pregnant, have a young child, or want to reduce your exposures to phthalates for other reasons.

In a follow up article posted by, Dr. Sathyanarayana states that she has not run the numbers herself, but you would most likely need to eat multiple boxes of Mac and Cheese every day to see clear negative health effects. The article notes that the study cited in the New York Times article did not indicate the levels of phthalates found in the powdered cheese samples, so it is difficult to say if the dose is high enough to be harmful.

NIEHS Worker Training Program Making an Impact in Alaska

The NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) is a significant and integral national training element of the NIEHS “Hazardous Substance Basic Research and Training Program” authorized by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (42 USC 9660).

These Hazardous Waste program awardees provide health and safety training for workers who are, or can be, exposed to hazardous materials and waste as part of their jobs or during emergency response.

The NIEHS WTP was able to make a difference in the life of Candice Saunders, an unemployed, single mother from Allakaket, Alaska, population 107. Candice completed the RACEJT Program which gave her skills in solid waste management, job training, and MS Word and Excel skills. When the community's Indian General Assistance (IGAP) Coordinator left their position, Candice had the skills to step up and save her small community. Read more about the NIEHS WTP program's impact in Alaska here!

The University of Washington is proud to be part of the Western Region Universities Consortium (WRUC), which consists of four university-based programs located in the Western United States offering NIEHS WTP training. Read more about the UW NIEHS Worker Training Program here.
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