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August 4, 2016

Long-term health of construction workers gets new focus in UW's CM program

  • Professor Ken-Yu Lin says the industry needs to pay more attention to issues such as chemical exposure, hearing loss and joint pain.
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Construction can be a rewarding field, but it's not without its physical risks.

    Workers not only face immediate jobsite dangers such as falls and electrocutions, but can struggle with long-term health problems from lead or chemical exposure, or suffer from hearing loss or joint and back pain.

    The construction industry has made strides in addressing the immediate dangers, but an expert says the industry needs to focus more on broader health concerns.

    Construction “puts a lot of physical stress and strain to a worker's body,” said Ken-Yu Lin, an associate professor in the University of Washington's Department of Construction Management. “Those are all issues that are more on the public health side, but we don't know much about them or pay much attention to them.”

    Lin is working to fix this oversight.

    She is director of a new 18-month track within UW's Master of Science in Construction Management program called Construction Management Occupational Safety and Health, or CMOSH. The program will begin its second academic year this fall.

    The interdisciplinary track brings together faculty from the departments of Construction Management and Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, which is part of the School of Public Health. The track is likely the first such graduate program in the country, Lin said.

    The idea for the CMOSH program started a couple of years ago, when Lin struck up conversations with faculty in the School of Public Health, seeking ways to collaborate with them.

    David Kalman, an environmental health professor and director of the Northwest Center for Occupational Health & Safety, was one of the first people she spoke with.

    Kalman had been working on renewing a five-year federal training grant, and saw an opportunity to propose something innovative for the next funding cycle.

    “That was sort of the spark that set the whole thing off,” said Kalman, who's been an informal adviser for the program.

    Students who graduate from CMOSH will have a standard master's degree in construction management, but their public health focus will give them the tools to support their employer's safety department.

    Lin said she expects most graduates to begin their careers as project engineers, but be able to serve as a bridge between construction and safety.

    “We see our students wearing two hats at the same time. They can go on to the occupational safety route or they can be more traditional project engineers,” Lin said.

    The curriculum includes course titles such as “Industrial Hygiene,” “Data-Driven Construction and Health Safety,” and “Fundamentals of Environmental and Occupational Toxicology.”

    Kalman said many construction companies don't have a lot of management-level expertise in these areas, or aren't large enough to have full-time staff dedicated to health and safety.

    Even staff who do have health and safety backgrounds may not have construction expertise, so they wind up learning on the job.

    “With this new program, (graduates) are not only specialists in construction management, but they have advanced training in safety and health, so they're useful from day one,” Kalman said.

    Lin said she's been getting positive feedback about the program from employers.

    “They want to know, ‘Have you got any students we can hire?'” she said.

    That's all in the future. The training grant, which comes from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, allows only enough funding for three students. For the first year, the program had one student, and two more will join in the coming year.

    “Three new students every year is the target,” Lin said. “But I hope we can recruit up to six students a year.”

    Long-term plans for the program are more ambitious. Lin said she wants to get the word out about the program to the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world.

    “I see this as a great time to raise awareness,” she said.

    With young people more hesitant to enter the industry, it's important for construction companies to do what they can to preserve their workforce, she said.

    Kalman added that the fast pace of technological change and shifting industry practices is adding risks for companies, workers and even end users, who may occupy structures assembled with new kinds of buildings materials.

    “It requires an understanding of the issues and resources to help,” he said.

    The CMOSH program in its current form provides a beachhead for the university, but the plan is to scale up.

    “This gives us a place to start, but it's far short of the size of the need,” Kalman said.

    He said he'd like to see the program serve as many as 30 students, but the university will have to find more sponsors first. Funding could come from sources such as industry employers, and trade and industry associations.

    “I don't want to pull the trigger too soon,” he said, in reference to fundraising efforts. First, the program needs to get a little more established.

    “It will be a really important resource for the construction industry if we find the funds to make this happen,” he said.


    Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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