Tufts University receives federal grant to address occupational risks among immigrants

Community-based effort will be model to help most vulnerable workers

The Tufts University School of Engineering has received a four-year grant of $899,644 [100 percent of total project costs] from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) to advance understanding of occupational health risks among a fast growing but vulnerable segment in the American workforce: immigrant workers.

The grant will fund intervention efforts in the city of Somerville, Mass., to be developed by researchers from Tufts' School of Engineering and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in concert with the Immigrant Service Providers Group (ISPG) and the Cambridge Health Alliance. Tufts will also collaborate with the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), the Haitian Coalition, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and the Brazilian Women's Group.

"Immigrants have accounted for 82 percent of the growth of the labor force in Massachusetts since the mid 1980s. Somerville, which has seen the number of foreign-born residents grow by 34 percent in 10 years, is an important gateway for newcomers," explained Principal Investigator David M. Gute, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University and an epidemiologist.

"While many foreign-born workers have impressive skill sets, most arrive in this country because of war, natural disaster, or economic crisis and are often poor and lacking in formal education," he continued. "As a result, they live in the least desirable housing, have limited access to health care, work at the lowest paid jobs under the worst conditions, and are exposed to a disproportionate share of environmental hazards in their schools and homes."

Society's stake in addressing issues

Society has a strong stake in addressing these problems, according to Alex Pirie, coordinator of the ISPG. "Aside from the obvious human cost, there is also a cost to society when immigrant occupational health and environmental health issues are not addressed. Human suffering is multiplied and we all share the greater expense of treatment for advanced and chronic illnesses."

"Immigrant workers in the Somerville and greater Boston area are frequently working in small groups, particularly in service industries, such as housecleaners, floor refinishers housepainters or in small businesses such as nail salons beauty salons and auto body shops. They often receive inadequate training about the hazards and how to do the job safely, and as a result frequently develop illnesses and injuries that are often unseen and unmet," said Dr. Rose Goldman, chief, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, Cambridge Health Alliance, who will provide clinical care for workers in the study.

Youth educators as change agents

The Tufts-led study will include an annual assessment driven by public health surveillance data as well as by detailed interviews with community-based providers to identify and characterize the immigrant worker population and the work-related environmental exposure risk to workers. The assessments will represent a joint effort by Tufts faculty skilled in the areas of sociology, risk assessment and epidemiology acting in concert with students and the community partners.

Armed with in-depth knowledge of risk and health issues, such as respiratory and dermal exposure to potentially harmful solvents and cleaning agents, the study team will train youth educators who will teach immigrant workers about occupational hazards and safe practices. These trainers will be bi-lingual young people who historically serve as "change agents" within their families and communities.

"We have successfully used this model of training previously for topics ranging from tobacco use to other environmental issues" said Ismael Vasquez, program coordinator of CAAS. The impact on the broader community of this work has been noted. "Youth educators have served as powerful advocates for change in their communities which serves to improve the health and safety of all," said Franklin Dalembert, executive director of the Haitian Coalition.

Cleaning coop to break new ground

The program will also break new ground by launching an entirely new business model for immigrant workers: a non-profit green cleaning cooperative that will help to break down the barrier of isolation faced by these workers. "Brazilian women cleaners form a large occupational group working and living in Somerville who can benefit from this new structure and by learning about safe work practices and the benefits of using environmentally friendly cleaning products," said Monica Chianelli, coordinator, Brazilian Women's Group.

Leveraging existing resources to build grass-roots capacity

All grant activities will benefit from relationships with area organizations and people active in occupational and environmental health. "The youth educator training, for example, will benefit from materials and methods developed in our work with Dorchester and other communities in greater Boston," said Marcie Goldstein-Gelb, MassCOSH executive director.

Building this kind of grass-roots capacity and engaging community-based immigrant family members is a vital part of the study, according to Co-Investigator Raymond R. Hyatt, Jr., assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "True community based participatory research involves a transfer of research activities – and expertise – to the community, which facilitates long-term solutions," he said. "As we train the community-based immigrant family members to perform research in their community and give workers the skills they need to form a cooperative, we are making a genuine transfer of critical expertise to our community partners."

Study results will provide a model for other communities. "As we identify needs and best practices in Somerville, we will actively seek to disseminate this information to other cities and towns," said David Gute. "Both the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Boston Public Health Commission are committed to helping with this effort, and a local 13-person Advisory Committee will also be created."

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Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's eight schools is widely encouraged.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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