An Evolving Field
While its emphasis has shifted from heavy industry to issues like ergonomics and noise
pollution, occupational health remains a vital public health concern—just as it was
in Henry Ford’s day.
With its long history of manufacturing, the state of Michigan is an obvious and important place for the study of industrial hygiene. Back in the 1950s, General Motors and other corporations helped establish a robust industrial hygiene program at SPH, and people flocked to Ann Arbor for training.
Since then the American work environment has evolved, with less emphasis on heavy
industry and more on service occupations. But occupational health remains a vital
public health concern, and Michigan remains a locus for education in the field. Founded
in 1982, and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education,
the UM Education and Research Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering has trained thousands of students specializing in industrial hygiene and other occupational
specialties. The center has also served as a statewide resource for outreach, assistance,
and continuing education; and provided needed infrastructure for research on occupational
safety and health issues. Three UM units—SPH, the College of Engineering, and the
School of Nursing—participate in the center.
Director of the center and SPH Professor Stuart Batterman notes that while the center continues to offer training in traditional areas such as industrial hygiene and hazardous materials, it also focuses on ergonomics, epidemiology, and community issues like industrial noise pollution. Many students who’ve received training from the center now work in Michigan—in government, consulting, and industry, including the Big Three.
When workers grind or drill metal—a regular activity in Michigan’s auto- and auto-supply industries—they often use metalworking fluids. Most such fluids are mixtures of oil, emulsifying agents, synthetic organic compounds, and water—a tasty brew for the robust microbiologic communities that like to inhabit these fluids. Such microorganisms have been linked to at least 20 outbreaks of lung disease since the 1990s, and manufacturing plants have spent significant time and money trying to address the problem.
In a research study funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, SPH researchers Chuanwu Xi and Al Franzblau are working to understand the microorganisms that inhabit metalworking fluids and to devise ways to better control their numbers. The scientists have applied new microbiological techniques to monitor the dynamics of these microbial communities, which they’re finding to be much more complex than previously thought. The biofilms that develop in these systems “may provide a shield reservoir for most of these microbes,” says Xi.
Dateline: Flint: Restoring kids—and a community
An after-school and summer program built around the concept that kids can and want to reduce violence and improve their neighborhoods has led to lower crime rates, better upkeep on homes, and more students who said they learned to resolve conflicts without violence.
The program, Youth Empowerment Solutions for Peaceful Communities (YES), is a UM SPH case study involving seventh- and eighth-grade students at select schools in Flint, Michigan—a former industrial center hard hit by the statewide decline in manufacturing jobs. Developed by UM SPH and the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, the program is designed to empower participants to develop and carry out neighborhood improvement and beautification projects with adult support.
Middle-school students, including those with poor academic and disciplinary records, were randomly assigned to the YES program. Over two years, neighborhood and community projects ranged from murals to trash pickup to, in one case, cleaning and beautifying an entire public park. Researchers measured outcomes at the community level, such as crime and beautification of homes and lots near the project sites. The study also assessed outcomes on the individual level among the kids who participated.
The most promising result at the community level was a 50 percent reduction in violent crime near the Rosa Parks Peace Park renovation project—the most involved community project planned and completed by the YES kids. Landscaping and lawn maintenance near several of the project sites also improved. Results also were encouraging at the individual level. Kids who participated in the YES program were much more likely to report nonviolent conflict avoidance and resolution than those who did not participate. YES participants also reported fewer instances of victimization.
“The effect on the kids was really impressive,” said Thomas Reischl, associate research scientist at UM SPH, who co-authored the study with Susan Morrel-Samuels, managing director of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center and the Prevention Research Center of Michigan.
Previous studies have suggested the promise of youth empowerment strategies for violence prevention, but this is the first case study to really put a curriculum to the test, said Reischl, who attributed the positive outcomes, though modest, to a multilayered approach. “Youth violence is not just a matter of changing the kids,” he said. Rather, it’s a matter of empowering kids, with adult supervision, to change the community in which the violence happens. “We feel it’s a very promising strategy.”
Despite some limitations, the study and its promising results have led to a five-year National Institutes of Health grant that will allow SPH researchers to conduct controlled studies to test YES in eight middle schools in Flint and surrounding areas.
Hometown Hero: During Public Health Week last year, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Community Health chose SPH Professor Marc Zimmerman, chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education and director of the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, as a 2011 Hometown Health Hero. The award recognizes the work Zimmerman has done as principal investigator on the project Youth Empowerment Solutions for Peaceful Communities (YES).
A Manufacturing Hub
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought vast numbers of new settlers to Michigan territory and helped nudge the region toward its later reputation as a manufacturing and industrial hub. Early industries of note included lumber (Michigan led the nation in production from 1870 to the early 1900s), iron and copper mining, furniture-making (Grand Rapids remains home to five of the world’s leading office-furniture companies), and railroads.
But the state we know today took root at the turn of the 20th century, with Henry Ford’s introduction of the world’s first moving assembly line, in Highland Park, and the birth of the automotive industry. The car transformed human existence and reshaped Michigan. By 1920, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city. So many immigrants flocked to southeast Michigan that by 1930 over 30 languages were spoken in Detroit’s public schools. Spin-off factories, including the famed Willow Run bomber plant, took off, and Michigan became a center of union organizing.
More recently, the contraction of the auto industry has forced cities like Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit to confront significant socioeconomic challenges and to begin forging new identities. Today, the face of industry in Michigan is both familiar—auto manufacturing is resurgent—and changing. New industries include alternative energy, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, defense and homeland security, and hospitality and travel.
Did You Know?
- Alpena is home to the world’s largest cement plant.
- Rogers City has the world’s biggest limestone quarry.
- The Upper Michigan Copper Country is the world’s largest commercial deposit of native copper.
- Michigan is first in the U.S. in the production of peat and magnesium compounds and second in gypsum and iron ore.
- Battle Creek is the Cereal Capitalof the World.
- Colon is home to the world’s largest manufacturer of magic supplies.
By the Numbers: Occupational Health and Safety
- 140 million: Estimated number of U.S. workers
- 170 billion: Estimated annual costs, direct and indirect, in dollars, of work-related injuries and illnesses in the U.S.
- 5 million: Estimated number of workers in Michigan
- 300,000: Number of Michigan workers per year who experience work-related injuries or illnesses
- 25,000: Number of occupational safety and health professionals employers expect to hire within the next five years
Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (PDF); National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, National Assessment
of the Occupational Safety and Health Workforce