Job safety

Tufts study will aid immigrant workers

The School of Engineering has received a four-year, $899,644 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health to advance understanding of occupational health risks among immigrant workers, a fast-growing but vulnerable segment of the U.S. workforce.

The grant will fund intervention initiatives in Somerville, Mass., that will be developed by researchers from the School of Engineering and the Friedman School in concert with the Immigrant Service Providers Group (ISPG) and the Cambridge Health Alliance. Tufts also will collaborate with the Community Action Agency of Somerville, the Haitian Coalition, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and the Brazilian Women’s Group.

“Immigrants have accounted for 82 percent of the growth of the labor force in Massachusetts since the mid 1980s. Somerville, which has seen the number of foreign-born residents grow by 34 percent in 10 years, is an important gateway for newcomers,” said David M. Gute, the principal investigator and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“While many foreign-born workers have impressive skill sets, most arrive in this country because of war, natural disaster or economic crisis and are often poor and lacking in formal education,” he said. “As a result, they live in the least-desirable housing, have limited access to health care, work at the lowest-paid jobs under the worst conditions and are exposed to a disproportionate share of environmental hazards in their schools and homes.”

Immigrants in Somerville and Greater Boston frequently work as house cleaners, floor refinishers and painters or in small businesses such as beauty salons and auto body shops. “They often receive inadequate training about how to do the job safely, and as a result, frequently develop illnesses and injuries that are often unseen and unmet,” said Dr. Rose Goldman, chief of occupational and environmental medicine for the Cambridge Health Alliance, which will provide clinical care for workers in the study.

The study will include an annual assessment to identify and characterize the immigrant worker population and their risk of exposure to work-related environmental toxins such as solvents and cleaning agents. The study team will train youth educators who will teach immigrant workers about occupational hazards and safe practices.

The program also will launch a new business model for immigrant workers: a nonprofit green cleaning cooperative. “Brazilian women cleaners form a large group working and living in Somerville who can benefit by learning about safe work practices and the benefits of using environmentally friendly cleaning products,” said Monica Chianelli, coordinator of the Brazilian Women’s Group.

Building this kind of grassroots capacity and engaging community-based immigrant family members is a vital part of the study, according to Raymond R. Hyatt Jr., a study co-investigator and an assistant professor at the Friedman School. “As we train the community-based immigrant family members to perform research in their community and give workers the skills they need to form a cooperative, we are making a genuine transfer of critical expertise to our community partners,” he said.