Before a capacity crowd of 200 at the David Brower Center, COEH Director John Balmes kicked-off the 2015 Lela Morris Symposium on ergonomics, health, and workplace design. Held in Berkeley on May 22, 2015, the symposium brought together industry and worker representatives from the United States and around the world. Adding to the faculty and staff in attendance from the three campuses of COEH – UC Berkeley, UCSF, and UC Davis – researchers attended from UCLA, Washington University in Seattle, Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, Northeastern University, and the University of Bologna, Italy.
Balmes opened the symposium by introducing David Rempel, his esteemed colleague of 30 years. Rempel, founder of the University of California Ergonomics Program, exemplifies COEH’s triple mandate of teaching, research, and service, according to Balmes. Many in the packed theater came to honor the legacy of Rempel, now professor emeritus after retiring as director of the Ergonomics Program.
Keynote speaker William Marras spoke to the role of ergonomics in design. Marras is a National Academy of Engineering member and a professor and Honda Endowed Chair in the Department of Integrated Systems Engineering at the Ohio State University. His presentation detailed a four-part systems approach to design, which extends beyond the worker’s isolated musculoskeletal disorder to include psychosocial stressors in the workplace and the broader occupational environment. Marras contends this “human-centered” context is what separates trained ergonomists from other fields. He argues that fitting the environment to the human, or “human factors design,” ultimately improves worker productivity and reduces health care costs. The three key components of high quality ergonomics are that it is design centered, takes a systems approach, and considers work performance and well-being.
Following Marras, presenter Barbara Silverstein, executive committee chair of the Industrially Developing Countries Committee for the International Ergonomics Association, described how she applies the Balance Theory developed by Pascale Carayon to assist international workplaces to improve worker and company health. (The theory initially recognized the influence of work on job stress.)
Using the example of coffee farming in Jalapa, Nicaragua, Silverstein showed how workers were not only exposed to musculoskeletal risks while harvesting, but they had the added risk of carrying 40 pound sacks of coffee cherries down steep mountain terrain. Her international team engaged worker focus groups while designing prototype baskets to better balance their load to reduce back discomfort and fall risks.
The emphasis of the symposium turned to new national initiatives on injury prevention. Thomas Armstrong from the University of Michigan Center for Ergonomics discussed draft guidelines recently proposed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) for Threshold Limit Values (TLV). The new limits will help protect workers exposed to upper limb localized fatigue on a daily basis.
Switching the lens from national to state measures, Deborah Gold, former deputy chief of Health and Engineering Services at Cal/OSHA, laid out the complexity of extending California’s Safe Patient Handling regulation (AB1136) to long-term care (LTC) facilities. Currently, AB1136 protects workers in acute-care hospitals and excludes LTC and correctional facilities.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for 33 percent of all injury and illness cases in 2013, reported Gold. Nursing assistants were among the most at risk, with MSD cases accounting for 53 percent of the total cases of injury and illness (BLS – December 16, 2014).
Following a break, Richard Jackson re-energized the theater with his presentation linking the built environment to ergonomics and health. Jackson, former director of COEH in southern California and a professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, relayed his experience in the trenches during his leadership tenures at the CDC National Center for Environmental Health and California Department of Public Health.
Wrapping up the day’s presentations, Carisa Harris-Adamson from UC Berkeley and Samuel Merritt University and Jack Dennerlein from Northeastern University presented results of their U.S. studies on preventing hand and arm injuries and improving the safety culture through workplace programs.
Two panel discussions during the symposium synthesized each presenter’s perspective on ergonomics, workplace design, and health. Guest expert Francesco Violante, Director of the Occupational Medicine Department at the University of Bologna, moderated the first panel. Andy Imada, President of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, moderated the second. Imada asked audience member Meg Honan, a senior ergonomics program manager at Genentech and graduate of the UC Berkeley Ergonomics Program, her unscripted advice on effecting change in workplace health.
“I believe that if you give employers a pathway to be successful when you are proposing programs to improve ergonomics, where they can exercise their values and create a balance with the profits they need, they are willing to come along,” said Honan. “You have to be persistent and give them a path forward.”
Balmes wrapped up the symposium with an open invitation to an after-party celebrating Rempel’s retirement. Family, colleagues, and graduate students at the party waited for a turn to toast Rempel’s lifelong contributions as a leader, scientist, entrepreneur, mentor, and friend.
Daniel Brown won the 2015 COEH M. Donald Whorton Award for “Best Original Paper” and Michael Guarnieri received first place for “Best Scientific Writing Paper.” The awards honor the late Dr. Whorton. Announced annually at the symposium, the awards recognize important new voices in occupational and environmental research.
Guarnieri’s Lancet paper, “Outdoor air pollution and asthma,” discussed the effects of particulate matter, gaseous pollutants, and mixed traffic-related air pollution on pre-existing and onset asthma. It also examined clinical implications, policy issues, and research gaps relevant to asthma and air pollution.
Brown’s paper, “Occupational exposure to PM2.5 and incidence of ischemic heart disease: Longitudinal targeted minimum loss based estimation,” has been published by the journal, Epidemiology. The study provides evidence that there is a causal relationship between inhaling small particulate at levels seen in an occupational environment and the subsequent development of heart disease. Read the article, Exposure to Small Particle Air Pollution Linked to Ischemic Heart Disease in Aluminum Workers which highlights Brown’s research is also found in this Summer issue of the Bridges Newsletter.
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