U. center researches safety hazards in Utah work environments

Published: Monday, July 1 2013 7:28 p.m. MDT

A woman tests how her body uses oxygen at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah.

Jay Dortzbach, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A research center at the University of Utah is studying ways to make workers and workplaces safer.

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 Matthew Thiese, an instructor at the center.

Ergonomists, occupational therapists, physicians and others are part of the team that evaluates workplaces. The center will then work to eliminate potential hazards or suggest policies that companies should have in place, such as guidelines for lifting heavy objects.

Thiese said roadside fatality rates have been decreasing in Utah and nationwide as a result of studies the center and others like it conduct. He said fatalities are down because of education on safer driving techniques.

Another aspect the center researches is how workers' physical health can affect their job performance. 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.

Another program is a motion capture system with cameras and infrared technology to chart a worker's 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.

"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.

The center, established in 1977, also is conducting a study to learn more about back pain and its causes. According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans spend $50 billion each year on lower back pain, which is the most common cause of job-related disability.

Other physical aspects the center researches are whether diet and other lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use, might be affecting a worker's health and performance.

The center also studies biohazards by using 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 Darrah Sleeth, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health.

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

The center also trains professionals who work in health and safety, as well as occupational residents who treat the workers.

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

email: jboal@deseretnews.com

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