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Center researches safety hazards in Utah work environments

By Jed Boal | Posted - Jun 27th, 2013 @ 10:43pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Many people don't think about work safety unless they have a physical or potentially hazardous job, but a nationally acclaimed research center at the University of Utah is working to protect workers statewide.

The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health works with 1,100 Utah companies to protect workers and their environment. When an employer approaches the center with a workplace concern, a worker goes to evaluate the work environment with an interdisciplinary team.

"We go in and evaluate all aspects of the job, and see really what are the dangerous elements, and then work with the company to see if we can address those," said Dr. Matthew Thiese, an instructor at the center.

The research at the center helps protect many Utahns on the job. Conclusions from their research can lead to changes and controls within entire industries.

One of the research systems at the center measures how well a person uses oxygen, and tells researchers whether job tasks are too challenging for a given employee and their stamina level.

"We do research on helping workers to stay healthy or if they're injured or sick, how to help them to get better," Thiese said.

A motion capture system uses cameras and infrared technology to chart a workers movement as a stick figure on a computer screen. The equipment calculates how a worker moves during a job task, and can help determine whether an injured worker can get back to work.

We do research on helping workers to stay healthy or if they're injured or sick, how to help them to get better.

–Dr. Matthew Thiese, research instructor

The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health study how movement and environment create risk for the worker, whether you drive a truck, work in a mine, or use a computer at a desk. The company is a resource for Utah employers.

"All of the companies, the 1,100 companies, have all come to us and said, 'This is a concern, or this is something we would like help with,'" Thiese said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans spend $50 billion each year on low back pain which is the most common cause of job-related disability. The center is conducting a study to learn more about back pain, and what causes it for workers.

However, the organization doesn't only study movements at work. They also determine whether diet, and other lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use, might be affecting a worker's health and performance.

The center uses a low-speed wind tunnel to assess how chemicals and organic compounds affect the air employees breathe at their workplace.

"We really want to know what is the dose to the worker of air particles," said Dr. Darrah Sleeth, Assistant Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Research can lead to improvements in the work environments of individuals that work around a lot of dust and chemicals like in a wood-working shop or a nail salon. Workers can let employers know if there's an environmental problem that needs attention, so they can increase ventilation, or eliminate certain products in the workplace.

"The bottom line is to protect the worker," Sleeth said.

Established in 1977, the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health is one of 18 national institutes for occupational safety. It scored a perfect 10 in a recent review, beating out other prestigious centers across the country.


Jed Boal

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