August 31, 2022

In Memoriam: Don Wasserman, 1939–2021

By Mark Geiger

This memorial notice celebrates the life and contributions of an icon in the field of occupational health.

Donald E. Wasserman, 82, of Frederick, Maryland, passed away Dec. 22, 2021. He was born April 1, 1939, to the late Arthur and Eva (nee Berkowitz) Wasserman, and he was the beloved husband to Helen Wasserman for 54 years. Don Wasserman grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where he rose from poverty to become a well-respected and world-renowned scientist.

As a teenager, he helped work on early models of the pacemaker and heart-lung machines at Yale University Medical School. Cardiac monitoring technology was a breakthrough in what would become medical electronics, and safety was increasingly understood as critical as it was learned that micro leaks of current conducted inside the body could lead to cardiac arrhythmias. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Connecticut in 1961, he collaborated with Yale Medical School doctors on fetal monitors at TMC in North Haven. He also worked at Perkin Elmer, where he became involved in links between electronics and laboratory analysis for medical chemistry, including process automation techniques encompassing chromatography and clinical chemistry.

Don’s completion of a master’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University in 1971 led to his introduction to ergonomics through the mentorship of Erwin Tichauer. Don subsequently moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work at NIOSH to evaluate human vibration, both hand-arm and whole body, as well as occupational noise exposures. His small shop developed much of its own equipment and often led the world in publications and research. He and his team integrated cutting-edge electronics into a mobile scientific lab constructed from a former military ambulance, which they named the Blue Goose.

In his long professional life as a biomedical engineer, Don was instrumental in developing international health standards regarding vibration-related injuries. The 143 scientific papers and 3 books he published over his career are now housed at the NIOSH library in Morgantown, West Virginia, and many can be found in the NIOSH publication database.

Unlike many scientists, Don was broadly focused on outreach so that his work could benefit the greatest number of people. He knew that he must reach both scientists, through peer-reviewed scientific publications, and the industrial victims of occupational exposures, through education and outreach. He taught classes in vibration that reached hundreds, perhaps thousands of scientists as well as a broad range of workers and administrators. Don pioneered the then-novel technology of educational video, on hand-arm vibration, in the 1970s, and he participated in an update of the video in the 2010s. He also earned a master’s in business administration from Xavier University while working in Cincinnati. He applied some techniques for consumer evaluation, such as focus groups, to the development of a layman’s guide to evaluation and purchase of safer power tools.

Don served as a leading consultant addressing hand-arm and whole-body vibration in the U.S. In this position, he persevered against legal challenges to victims of hand-arm vibration and even his own professional standing. Vibration diseases have not received the legal recognition or regulatory support in the U.S. that have been acknowledged in European and other advanced industrial countries.

One result of this legal gap was the development a consensus standard for evaluation of power tools that the U.S. government agencies could use in procurement of improved products. Don’s collaboration with government colleagues produced a standard that considered all safety and productivity aspects of power tools and could be applied to support federal purchasing and “civilian” counterparts. That standard is now in the process of being updated and should soon be published with an accompanying layman’s guide.

During semi-retirement and even after health conditions prevented travel and wider engagement, Don continued to serve as a mentor and inspiration to his technical successors.

While creating a massive level of technical output, Don Wasserman remained a devoted family man. His legacy continues through both the influence of his work and his loving family. Don is survived by his wife Helen; his daughters Melissa Bender (Matthew) and Sherri Wasserman; his grandchildren Jake and Alex Bender; his brother Joel Wasserman (Leslie); his nephews Robert Wasserman (Leigh) and Aaron Wasserman (Cami); his niece Suzanne Wasserman (Chad); and numerous cousins and great nieces and nephews.

Don will be remembered for his sharp wit and inspiring presence, and as a friend to many. He was always available to lend an ear to anyone who needed someone to listen.

Mark Geiger, MS. MSE, CIH, CSP, is a retired employee of the U.S. Navy and participated in the development of the SEA standard AS6228, Safety Requirements for Procurement, Maintenance and Use of Hand-held Powered Tools.