Students Engage with Local Businesses to Improve Workers’ Health and Safety

Published on July 9, 2014

Last fall, Iowa City resident Emily Maxwell suffered a serious injury while working at a local restaurant. “…a large pot of hot oil spilled all over my left arm, jawline, ear, neck, chest, stomach and back,” she wrote in a guest opinion for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. “Following the accident, none of my coworkers called 911. Everyone was afraid, and no one knew what to do.”

The burns, most second- and third-degree, covered 15 percent of her body. Now recovering from her injuries, Maxwell encourages restaurant owners to check their businesses for hazards and train their employees on how to handle emergencies.

Safer Work Sites

Maxwell is one of an estimated 3 million private industry employees in the U.S. who experience a nonfatal workplace injury or illness each year. College of Public Health students taking the course Occupational Safety gain skills to help prevent such injuries. The class is one of the required courses in the industrial hygiene training program, which prepares graduate students to recognize, evaluate, and control occupational and environmental hazards to prevent diseases and injuries.

“Industrial hygiene looks at chemicals, radiation, noise, the sort of things you need monitors to do assessments with,” says instructor Renée Anthony, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health. “But with occupational safety, we’re looking at things like fire and electrical safety; driving and traffic safety; preventing slips, trips, and falls; knife safety in restaurants—the whole gamut of preventing injury and traumatic injury at the work site.”

While regulations are important, so is education. As an example, Anthony points out that most people don’t know where the nearest fire extinguisher or first aid kit is at their workplace.

“One of the take home messages for this class is: No matter where you are working, don’t presume that somebody’s taking care of you. You need to know your rights and how to protect yourself.”

Community Consultations

The first week of the occupational safety class is spent reviewing case studies, such as the 1911 Triangle Waist factory fire in New York City that killed 146 workers, along with more recent national and local incidents, big and small.

To gain practical field experience, Anthony has students complete a semester-long, community-based project. “The assignment is for the student to identify a small, local business like a coffee shop or mom-and-pop auto repair business that probably doesn’t have safety and health expertise. They then talk to the owner to see if they would be interested in having the student conduct a safety consultation and work out an agreement as to what they can do.”

The students ask the owners questions about what workers are exposed to, where injuries have occurred, and what safety concerns they have in order to develop a safety plan. They also create an emergency evacuation plan for the site.

“The students are required to work with the owner so the plan will be something they can really use,” says Anthony. “The students are learning as they’re going and bring topics back to the class. The interventions they focus on are varied, depending on the business.”

This spring, students worked with food service, health care, manufacturing, and a variety of other service sites.

“I chose a real estate business that manages several apartment buildings in the area,” says Deirdre Green, a second-year master’s student in the industrial hygiene program. “I’ll give them some safety expertise for their main office, which has about six workers.”

Working with People

At the end of the semester the students deliver presentations on their projects, plus develop a safety-themed public service announcement (PSA) in a PowerPoint or video format.

“Depending on student interest, it could be a training module specific for their consultation site or be intended for a general audience. It has to focus on one specific task or behavior change, such as winter safety, fire safety at home, or how to minimize slips, trips, and falls for the elderly at home. Students select a topic based on known risk factors at work or in the community at large combined with something that they want to become an expert on,” says Anthony.

Green decided to create a PSA on space heater safety. “I thought it could tie into my safety consult,” she explains. “It’s something they could recommend to residents of their buildings, how to safely use space heaters and prevent fires.”

Anthony says the class gives students great hands-on experience. “We cover all the different types of hazards in class, but now they have to recommend ways to reduce these hazards in a real setting. Hopefully, they learn that while there are rules and regulations, rules alone don’t prevent injuries. There’s a whole additional layer of ‘How do we prevent injuries when we know what the hazard is?’ Working with people is really the way you get that done.”