The Safety of Workers, the Health of Populations
Master’s Student in Environmental Health Sciences
May 12, 2020, Air Quality, Engaged Learning, Environmental Health, Global Public Health, Industrial Hygiene, Internships, Leadership, Mentorship, Practice, Professional Development, Student Organizations, Toxicology, Water Quality
Environmental health has always been very important to me.
In high school, I joined an organization that facilitated marine conservation programs. I helped organize weekly beach clean ups and invited speakers to present at our high school about the importance of marine conservation. I also started a recycling program at my high school to conserve and protect our natural resources. These experiences helped nurture my desire to study environmental science.
In Kuwait, where I grew up, we have scarce water resources. Overuse of irrigation is a huge problem. Not only can overwatering waste precious water resources but it can ruin soil, which would be detrimental to many facets of human life, including food production.
I was beginning to understand the deep connections between the health of the environment and human health.
I was beginning to understand the deep connections between the health of the environment and human health and seeing this as a career path for me, too. I moved to the US after high school to study engineering at Penn State University and returned to Kuwait a few times to work with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR).
More about Sarah
- Gharib is an affiliate of the University of Michigan Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering (COHSE), an education and research center supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Student affiliates in COHSE work with faculty experts and other leaders in the field on research projects and learn about the many ways they can pursue a rewarding career in occupational health.
- Gharib earned a BS in environmental systems engineering—with a specialty in environmental health and safety engineering—from Penn State University.
My first project with KISR was testing samples in the food supply for purity and safety. I analyzed honey samples to ensure they were not contaminated. And I analyzed food samples in plastic containers containing phthalates in a project funded by the Kuwaiti government to ensure food in plastic containers distributed to preschool children was safe.
The following summer I worked on an irrigation project with KISR, helping a research team develop an automatic irrigation system that used deployed sensors to test water loss from evaporation. The system was designed to monitor soil moisture and shut itself off when the field was adequately hydrated. Of course, such a system helps protect workers, too, by keeping them out of the intense heat of a Kuwaiti summer.
When you spend time with industrial workers you realize that—even in a strong culture of worker safety—misconceptions exist about the impact of environmental exposures on their overall health.
After finishing my engineering degree, I worked for a year at the Boeing Everett Factory in Washington as an industrial hygiene intern. This gave me a tremendous amount of field work experience, collecting and analyzing personal and area samples for noise, chemical, and particulate exposures for workers doing aircraft assembly, composite manufacturing, painting, and interiors manufacturing. From that data, we then worked on controlling worker exposure to the chemicals, dust, noise, and other occupational and environmental hazards that can affect their health.
This internship inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in industrial hygiene. The safety standards at Boeing are pretty remarkable, and they helped me discover my intellectual and personal passion for worker safety. As an undergrad, my impression of industrial hygiene had been that it was rather boring. But when you spend time with industrial workers and realize that—even in a strong culture of worker safety—misconceptions exist about the impact of environmental exposures on their overall health, it makes you want to apply your environmental health skills to help people.
So much of my time was spent meeting and talking to people, seeing interesting things, and learning about new industrial processes.
Industrial hygiene is, rather, a really exciting field. Every day I was outside or walking through buildings to engage workers where they do their jobs—measuring noise, checking for other potential exposures, and reviewing overall safety compliance. I then took the data and assessed the safety of our workers and how we could communicate better about their daily routines. So much of my time was spent meeting and talking to people, seeing interesting things, and learning about new industrial processes.
At Michigan Public Health, I work with Rick Neitzel on worker safety, including noise exposure to protect workers’ hearing. In the summer of 2019, I did my internship abroad with an airline, and most of the workers were from immigrant populations. I performed health and safety assessments with airplane maintenance workers—including noise and heat exposure—observed adherence to safety standards, and used questionnaires to learn more about safety hazards and the overall health and safety culture and climate at the facility. The climate questionnaires include discussions of internal communications—if they bring a problem forward, how is it addressed? Do they feel safe asking supervisors to address safety issues?
More about Sarah
- Gharib was president of the University of Michigan Industrial Hygiene Student Association (UMIHSA)—the campus organization for industrial hygiene and occupational hygiene students—during fall and winter 2019. UMIHSA is a recognized local section of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and collaborates closely with the Michigan Industrial Hygiene Society (MIHS), the local AIHA section. Members engage in many sponsored networking events, meet and interact with industrial hygiene professionals, and provide philanthropic and professional development events to help our members become more well rounded and productive professionals.
- Gharib was a certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Associate from 2017–2019. “LEED GA certification means you have basic knowledge of sustainable, environment-informed design,” she explained. “You can then specialize and become an Accredited Professional in certain fields of design, such as Operations and Maintenance or Building Design and Construction.”
With an introduction from the school’s alumni relations director, I have been doing some mentor-mentee work with Dennis Hussey, MPH ’76, who spent two decades leading health and safety work for General Electric’s health care division and another decade leading health and safety programs in the aerospace-defense industry.
Thanks to my mentor’s advice, I’ve saved a lot of time and been able to focus my research in more efficient ways, which has allowed me to learn more in the process.
This connection has enhanced my Michigan Public Health experience in so many ways. Dennis and I started off with general discussions of industrial health and safety, sustainability issues, and the economics around our mutual interests. From there, he recommended some books that we’ve discussed. And when I began working on my thesis, I shared my general ideas and approaches with him and he offered extremely helpful feedback about assessing safety climates and researching health hazards in industrial settings. Thanks to his advice, I’ve saved a lot of time and been able to focus my research in more efficient ways, which has allowed me to learn more in the process.
I’ve enjoyed the open, collaborative atmosphere here at Michigan Public Health and the passion everyone has for research and the impact of our research. The faculty portfolios are so diverse, with people doing work locally and internationally in so many different areas of environmental health.
It is fascinating and empowering to see everything that goes on in public health, to work alongside such a variety of experts who are also just good people, and to know that my own expertise and efforts every day becomes part of this incredible work to keep workers and everyone in the population safer and healthier.
- Interested in public health? Learn more here.
- Read more stories about environmental health sciences faculty, students, staff, and alumni.
- Support research and engaged learning at the School of Public Health.