NASA’s Adam Steltzner discusses the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity at the Opening General Session of AIHce 2016.
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“Great Works” Abound at AIHce 2016

Keynoters and Lecturers Provide Lessons in Innovation
Innovation and risk: you can’t have the first without the second. Whether you’re landing a spacecraft on another planet, protecting workers from exposure to nanomaterials, or launching a new initiative to train occupational hygiene practitioners, you’re grappling with the paradox that no progress is possible without risk, that risk is inherent in any worthwhile endeavor. In one way or another, these ideas informed the keynote sessions and lectures at AIHce 2016 in Baltimore, Md., where thousands of professionals gathered May 21–26 for the largest annual conference devoted to occupational health and safety.

Landing a machine the size of a car on Mars requires some novel equipment. The world’s largest supersonic parachute, impressive as it sounds, isn’t enough. You also need a rocket-powered, hovering platform that unspools its tethers and places your vehicle just so on the red dust. But according to Adam Steltzner, the NASA engineer whose team designed and built the systems that landed the Mars rover
on the Red Planet in 2012, the most important thing you need is, well, curiosity. “It really is the ultimate tool in solving problems,” Steltzner told attendees at the AIHce 2016 Opening General Session. Steltzner, whose curiosity about the movement of the stars across the night sky inspired him to pursue a career in science, described how his team devised the “Sky Crane” maneuver—a new landing technique featuring that hovering platform—during a two-day brainstorming session at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). At that meeting, Steltzner said, he “learned the importance of the separation of ideas from the people who hold them.” This approach allowed the experts present to vigorously challenge each other’s ideas while maintaining their mutual respect. If they hadn’t applied that technique at the brainstorming session, Steltzner said, “we probably would have come out with the same ideas we went in with.” What they came out with instead was an entirely new way to land a rover. Previous systems had relied on airbags or mechanical legs, but neither option was feasible for the heavier
. The Sky Crane was so unorthodox that Steltzner worried how it would be perceived. He comforted himself with the thought that “great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.” On August 6, 2012, the world learned that Sky Crane was indeed great work. After a flawless landing,
went about its job of investigating the possibility that Mars was once habitable. It eventually found evidence that the planet’s ancient aqueous environment could have supported life, though an answer to the question of whether living things once walked, crawled, or swam on Mars remains elusive. It’s a question Steltzner hopes to help answer one day. Already, he and a team are working on a forthcoming NASA mission to Mars, a project that will bring samples of the Red Planet back to Earth. “With a culture of collaboration and our native human curiosity alive in us, there is very little human life cannot accomplish,” Steltzner said. “Where will your curiosity next take you?”

During the Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Award Lecture on May 23, Michael Ellenbecker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, discussed the uncertain toxicology surrounding engineered nanomaterials and the need to protect people and the environment. Although occupational exposures are well known, Ellenbecker said, “In some respects, our field is not paying enough attention to the hazards of nanomaterials.” Of special concern are carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Workers may be exposed to CNTs in research and development labs and in production settings, where the engineered nanomaterials are incorporated into products ranging from small, advanced memory devices to larger items like automobile bumpers. Ellenbecker urged greater attention to CNTs, given their potential to cause mesothelioma. Safety data sheets for CNTs, which are supposed to communicate their potential hazards, have been “seriously deficient,” he said. While Ellenbecker is skeptical that nano-specific regulations will be promulgated anytime soon, he expressed hope that governments could reach agreement on a standard protocol for evaluating exposures to engineered nanoparticles, including the consistent development of OELs. Today, vast differences exist between exposure levels from one country to the next. The proposed NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 1 μg/m3 of respirable elemental carbon, for example, differs from the comparable European Union value by a factor of 460,000.
“Industry’s going ahead whether we’re worried or not,” Ellenbecker said. “We cannot wait for occupational exposure limits before taking action. The time to act is now.”
“Industry’s going ahead whether we’re worried or not,” Ellenbecker said. “We cannot wait for occupational exposure limits before taking action.”
Attendees returned to the Baltimore Convention Center Ballroom on May 24 for the “AIHce Morning Show,” featuring Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels and NIOSH Director John
Howard. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by then-AIHA President Daniel H. Anna, Michaels and Howard updated the audience on new developments and challe
nges at their respective agencies. Michaels first addressed the agency’s recently published final rule on respirable crystalline silica, which had been in development for more than 15 years. The rule set a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 µg/m3. But Michaels said that the silica rule “seems pretty far in the rearview mirror” because of the recently finalized injury tracking rule, which will require employers in high-hazard industries to transmit to OSHA information about workplace injuries and illnesses. OSHA will remove all personally identifiable information from the data and post it to the agency’s website. “We know from behavioral economics that if you publicize information, it changes behavior,” Michaels said. Referring to the typically long delay between scientific consensus on a hazard and issuance of related regulations, Anna asked whether future rulemaking would be more responsive to research. Michaels was not optimistic. “The challenge is greater than ever,” he said, largely due to OSHA’s onerous substance-by-substance approach to rulemaking and its obligation to consider the feasibility of implementing controls when developing standards. Howard, too, questioned the usefulness of substance-by-substance rulemaking. “You can make a nanomaterial out of every element in the periodic table,” he said, implying that promulgating a new standard for every form of a material would be impossible. With many of OSHA’s standards outdated, the agency is considering eliminating some PELs. “That would give us the opportunity to use the General Duty clause” of the OSH Act to help protect workers, Michaels said. Asked to comment on how the current polarized political environment might affect their agencies, Michaels said that Americans’ views of OSHA are much more positive than conventional wisdom suggests. A poll by the Pew Research Foundation found that Americans across the political spectrum identify workplace safety as one of the federal government’s most important functions. Howard responded that recent infectious disease crises prove that Americans can work together. “Everyone worked hard in safety and health and the public health community t
o prevent Ebola from coming in to the U.S. in a big way,” Howard said. “Zika is another example of when we’re going to have to pull together. It’s a problem that spans our differences.”
The 16th Annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting May 24 acknowledged Sarah Maslin Nir of
The New York Times
for her reporting on the health hazards faced by workers in New York City’s nail salon industry. Nir’s investigation “Unvarnished” was published last May in two parts, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” and “The Price of Nice Nails.” Soon after her articles appeared, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a new state law to raise the health and safety standards in nail salons.
Nir met with hundreds of nail salon workers and worked with a team of translators to conduct interviews in four languages. Some of the workers, primarily immigrant women, told Nir that they experienced frequent nose bleeds, while others reported that their fingerprints had disappeared. Miscarriages were a common thread in Nir’s conversations. Women who were trying to become pregnant said that they would sit by the front door of the salon for the breeze because they “didn’t want a special child.”
The most common health effects in nail salons include repetitive motion strain and skin, eye, and respiratory irritation. Many veteran manicurists sport scars on their forearms from resting them on a manicure table. At least one manicurist Nir spoke with had a persistent cough and was eventually diagnosed with sarcoidosis of the lung, an inflammatory disease thought to be caused by exposure to acrylic powder.
Under New York’s new safety requirements, salon owners must provide certain personal protective equipment, including a properly fitting, NIOSH-approved N-95 or N-100 respirator, for manicurists to use when buffing or filing nails, or when using acrylic powder. Salon owners must also post a new “Bill of Rights” for nail workers in plain view.
The effects of Nir’s reporting are still being felt: in May, Gov. Cuomo directed nail salons to repay $2 million in lost, unpaid wages to more than 600 workers, and many consumers have a new awareness about the occupational hazards of nail salons.
When asked why she thought her story gained so much traction, Nir told attendees it’s because the workers affected by the hazards in nail salons are right in front of readers.
“This particular industry is very intimate—you’re holding hands, looking in their eyes,” she said. That intimacy makes it easier to remember that “there’s no such thing as a cheap luxury; there’s someone bearing the cost of your discount.”
“I think what we need is some youthful energy and daring spirit, and guess what that is? It’s risk taking."
Ten years ago, Roger Alesbury and Stephen Bailey began discussing a ​topic that concerned them greatly: the vast gulf between the need for industrial hygiene expertise around the world and the number of practitioners available to fill it. So they started laying the foundation for what may now be the world’s best hope for protecting worker health in developing nations.
Today, the Occupational Hygiene Training Orga
nization (OHTA), an organization that Alesbury and Bailey founded in 2010 to cultivate industrial hygienists in local areas, has conducted 600 IH courses in 40 countries, supported the creation of at least one new national industrial hygiene organization, and drawn more than 100,000 users to its website. In recognition of OHTA’s actual and potential achievements, AIHA acknowledged Alesbury and Bailey with the 2016 William P. Yant Memorial Award, which honors individuals residing outside the United States who have made outstanding contributions to industrial hygiene. This year marks the first time that the Yant Award, presented annually since 1965, has been granted to multiple winners.
At the Yant Award Lecture on May 24, Alesbury and Bailey discussed their vision for a localized training network and described OHTA’s improbable growth. Largely through the support of professional societies and multinational companies, OHTA has built training modules in several industrial hygiene topics, translated them into multiple languages, and delivered them to individuals interested in protecting worker health in their native countries.
So far, the number of people trained by OHTA is a tiny fraction of the total needed. Both Alesbury and Bailey acknowledged that fully meeting the demand for IH expertise is a tall order, but they expressed hope that additional support for OHTA from volunteers and organizations will eventually achieve significant gains for industrial hygiene.
“It’s not perfect, but this is an organization that has been designed to evolve,” Alesbury said. “If you don’t like what you see, you have the power to change it.”
AIHA Fellow Fred Boelter urged attendees to expand their professional focus beyond exposure during the Donald E. Cummings Memorial Award Lecture on May 25. To continue to improve worker health in today’s changing workplace, Boelter said that industrial hygienists must “learn and express a new language” related to the larger world of risk, which includes both occupational and non-occupational risk.
In a world “abundantly populated with risk,” Boelter noted that industrial hygiene professionals must look beyond their own perceptions of risk to understand how it’s perceived by workers and the general public. People don’t think about risk in terms of a mathematical equation, he said, and risk acceptability differs from person to person.
Industrial hygienists’ unique relationship with workers and employers puts them in a position to raise awareness about health risks that go beyond exposure, Boelter explained. Moving forward, industrial hygienists should focus on learning skills that will help them change workers’ behavior.
But change is necessary at the management level, too. Boelter pressed his audience to try to frame discussions on occupational risk factors more clearly and to work on presenting that information in “compelling business terms.”
“If our message and story is not being discussed in the board room, it’s not being retold,” he said.
Toward the end of his talk, Boelter contended that the industrial hygiene profession will have to take some risks to succeed in protecting worker health over the coming years.
“What would become of worker health if our profession disappeared?” Boelter asked his audience. “I think what we need is some youthful energy and daring spirit, and guess what that is? It’s risk taking. The future of worker health may just depend on it.”
is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737 or
is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or

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