You might not immediately think that a beauty salon is a particularly dangerous place to work, but the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences thinks differently. The NIEHS plans to spend nearly $3 million on an effort to help reduce exposures to hazardous chemicals in the workplace, specifically at beauty salons and automotive repair shops.
The Institute has awarded a five-year, $2.98 million grant to the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health to conduct a study of these two industries, whose workers are said to be at high-risk of chemical exposure. The study will focus on businesses located on the south side of Tucson that employ primarily Latino workers. El Rio Community Health Center and the Sonora Environmental Research Institute Inc. will partner with the University of Arizona (UA) on the project.
“Although preventable by definition, occupational disease and injuries are leading causes of death in the United States,” explains Paloma Beamer, environmental engineer and associate professor of environmental health sciences at UA and the study’s principal investigator. “Unfortunately, low-wage minority workers bear most of the burden of occupational disease.”
Small businesses like beauty salons and auto shops use solvents that include volatile organic chemicals associated with asthma, cancer, cardiovascular and neurological diseases. Part of the study will involve training community health workers (i.e., members of the community who provide basic health education) to identify hazardous chemicals in work settings, and to work with the salons and repair shops to design and implement controls to reduce exposure.
The project aims to determine whether face-to-face interaction with community health workers can help increase the capacity of workers with marginalized status, limited education and reduced access to healthcare to understand workplace hazards and effective control options to reduce exposures and prevent occupational disease.
“Ultimately, by reducing workplace exposures at the source, we may also reduce air pollution in these neighborhoods and impact the surrounding community’s health,” Beamer says.
Her research focuses on understanding how individuals are exposed to environmental contaminants and the health risks of these exposures with a special focus on vulnerable populations, including children, low-wage immigrant workers, Native Americans and individuals in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Her ultimate goal, she adds, is to design more effective interventions and policies for the prevention of avoidable cases of certain diseases, such as asthma.
Under the NIEHS grant, the El Rio Community Health Center will provide health screenings to small-business employees and educating them on the availability of healthcare services. The research team will gather information about the businesses and investigate the likelihood of worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. The team will then work with the business owners, employees, community health workers and trade groups to design an intervention focused on reducing the sources of dangerous workplace exposures. Then they will implement the intervention in a formal clinical trial, evaluate its effectiveness and identify factors that led the businesses to use exposure control strategies.