Helping Those Who Help Us
During my Coast Guard service, in the field of marine safety, I began working to protect first responders from benzene hazards during oil spill cleanups. Marine environments are unforgiving at the best of times, and artificial hazards only increase the danger. This was my entry into industrial hygiene, a versatile profession that can be practiced on land, under the sea, in the air, and even in space.
In my civilian career, protecting first responders is once again part of my job—presently, firefighters and their work environments are one of my chief health and safety concerns. While firefighters save lives and protect property, I help safeguard them and their equipment through providing education and inspecting their manual ladders, aerial lifts, turnout gear, respirators (SCBA), and departmental bloodborne pathogen programs. My work helps these first responders perform essential firefighting functions now and in the future.
Working in state government for over twenty-five years, first as a consultant in the Massachusetts OSHA Consultation Program and now in the Massachusetts Workplace Health and Safety Program, has put me in personal contact with first responders and other workers, employers, and officials with the purpose of changing their work conditions for the better. I have prevented both imminent dangers, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, and long-term chronic health hazards, like lead poisoning, silicosis, noise-induced hearing loss, musculoskeletal disorders, bloodborne pathogens, and chemical exposures.
In one visit to a small dry-cleaning business, I almost certainly saved two workers’ lives. It was a very cold January day when I arrived to inspect the business with air sampling pumps, intending to test for the presence of "perc," or perchloroethylene (aka tetrachloroethylene), a chemical used in the dry-cleaning process. I also had some carbon monoxide dosimeters. After setting up the air sampling pumps, I placed the dosimeters near the heating unit, which was in full use.
There should be no carbon monoxide at all in a space with a properly-functioning heating unit, but when I turned on the dosimeters that day, they gave readings of 250-300 ppm—far above the threshold for which bystanders begin to experience headaches and lightheadedness, and are in danger of unconsciousness and death, resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning. The employees onsite and I evacuated and called the gas company, which had recently installed the heating unit. It turned out that the ventilation was misdirected into the building, not to the outside. Both dry-cleaning workers—and I as well—reported headaches from carbon monoxide exposure.
Real-life encounters such as this one impressed upon me the civil servants’ duty to the greater good—to help prevent diseases and injury to the collective best interest of all rather than of a few. Like first responders, I work to preserve the lives, health, and property of members of the public, sometimes at the risk of my own—however, many of the people I serve are first responders themselves. Recently, I have done my part by joining the fight against COVID-19, working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to help stop the spread of the disease, and also with my local Medical Reserve Corps in flu clinics and town meetings, while following proper COVID-19 protocols.
I’ve also realized that giving back to my profession is important for the future public health profession, so for the last seven years I have volunteered with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) to evaluate industrial hygiene, safety, and related undergraduate and graduate programs in the United States. Working first as an ABET program evaluator and now as a team chair, this volunteering allows me to work with other like-minded team members and faculty to assure that colleges will keep the pipeline of health and safety professionals flowing.