HSPH center promotes health, safety in the workplace

November 28, 2011 — Developing ways for nurses to minimize back strain when lifting patients and procedures to help construction workers avoid injury on the job site are two initiatives being conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Center for Work, Health and Well-being. Established in 2007, the Center is one of four Centers of Excellence funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as part of the Total Worker Health™ program. In September 2011 NIOSH renewed the Center’s funding with a five-year grant totaling $6.3 million.

To mark the renewed funding, the Center hosted a meeting on November 7, 2011, with participants from the Center’s External Advisory Board and NIOSH on the topic, “In Pursuit of Total Worker Health.” Topics included updates on Center projects, information about changing demographic factors impacting U.S. workers’ health, safety, and well-being, and how conditions such as obesity are impacting workers’ health.

“Our team is delighted to receive renewal of our funding from NIOSH. We look forward to five additional productive years to focus on best approaches to promote and protect worker health.” said Glorian Sorensen, professor of society, human development, and health at HSPH, and the Center’s principal investigator. The Center also serves as an “incubator” to stimulate and support new research, provides a vehicle for disseminating research findings and best practices, and trains new investigators.

Holistic View of Workers’ Health

“We look at ways to promote workers’ health on and off the job in a holistic way,” said Sorensen, who also directs DFCI’s Center for Community-Based Research and serves as faculty vice president for faculty development at Dana-Farber. There is increasing evidence that workers’ lives outside of the workplace are connected to overall health, safety, and well-being of the workers, she said.

In the health care worker initiative, Center investigators are working with Partners HealthCare, Inc., studying the physical demands of nurses and other patient care workers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Researchers are developing policies, practices, and education protocols to reduce risk of musculoskeletal injuries on the job. They also are looking at the workers’ diet, sleep patterns, and physical activity on and off the job, as related components.

In an initiative aimed at construction workers, the Center is working with labor unions, general contractors, and owners to develop a comprehensive health and safety program that improves work site ergonomics while providing integrated opportunities to quit smoking and improve physical activity. “Construction workers have the highest use of tobacco of any occupation,” Sorensen said. They also have high rates of musculoskeletal disorders compared to workers in other industries.

Collaborative Effort

The Center is a collaboration between HSPH, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) Center for Community-Based Research, Partners Health Care, Inc., Boston University School of Public Health, New England Research Institutes, JourneyWell, Institute for Work and Health, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The Center is also a cross-departmental effort that includes HSPH’s Department of Society, Human Development and Health as well as the Department of Environmental Health and its Environmental and Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology Program. The Center collaborates closely with the Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety and Health (ERC). The ERC gives occupational safety and health professionals the opportunity to develop public health perspectives and sensitivity about political climates. The ERC also fosters skills and knowledge needed to identify and prevent occupational impairments, disease, and injuries through control or elimination of harmful occupational exposures.

“Through the Center, we’re fulfilling the intent of the initial Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, established by the United States Congress to assure safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources,” said Jack Dennerlein, senior lecturer on ergonomics and safety at HSPH, and Center co-principal investigator. He also directs the Occupational Injury Prevention Research Training Program for the Harvard ERC.

–Marge Dwyer

photo: iStockphoto/1905HKN