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Your Environment. Your Health.

Empowering Workers and Fenceline Communities Facing Hazardous Exposures

Linda Delp, Ph.D.

June 20, 2018

Portrait of Linda Delp

Delp is an adjunct professor in the UCLA School of Public Health where she teaches students about workplace hazards, social determinants of health, and health equity. She is also co-principal investigator of the national Occupational Health Internship Program (OHIP), where she mentors students who are placed with unions, worker centers, and community groups to experience occupational health from workers’ perspectives.
(Photo courtesy of UCLA-LOSH)

Linda Delp, Ph.D., has dedicated her career to improving worker health and safety and protecting communities from hazardous exposures. For more than 20 years, she has led the development of health and safety education and research programs for workers in a range of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and goods movement.

Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Delp remembers how her father, who worked in the construction field, came home with a job-related injury. As she recalls, certain injuries and hazards were considered part of the job.

This experience and other interests shaped Delp’s career in occupational health. Today, she directs the University of California at Los Angeles Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA-LOSH), and serves as principal investigator of the Western Region Universities Consortium (WRUC), which is funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP).

“Many of us go into a career in occupational health seeking to identify and control workplace hazards and to ensure that workers know their rights,” Delp said. “However, we have broadened our view in occupational health to include surrounding or fenceline communities.” Fenceline communities are neighborhoods adjacent to refineries, ports, and chemical facilities, which often puts these communities in the direct path of accidents, spills, explosions, and toxic emissions.

Preparing and training workers for environmental careers

As the principal investigator of WRUC, Delp works with Consortium partners at the University of California, Berkeley, Arizona State University, and the University of Washington to provide a range of environmental health and safety job training to workers and communities throughout the region, from the U.S.-Mexico border to Alaska, and westward to the Pacific Islands.

Fenceline community training day

Contamination from the Exide lead battery recycling facility has affected more than 100,000 people. WRUC has helped train residents in Los Angeles for jobs testing local properties for lead and cleaning up contaminated soil.
(Photo courtesy of UCLA-LOSH)

Fenceline community training day participants in Personal protective Equipment

To help address contamination from the Exide facility, students received week-long training in hazardous waste operations, as well as awareness-level courses on lead, asbestos, mold, confined space, and heat illness prevention.
(Photo courtesy of Kevin Riley, UCLA-LOSH)

One focal point of WRUC’s work is providing environmental career opportunities and training to fenceline communities in the Los Angeles’ South Bay Area and San Francisco’s East Bay. Over the past two decades, these areas have witnessed a rise in industrial fires, explosions, and contamination.

For instance, in Vernon, California, the Exide battery recycling plant was responsible for emitting lead, arsenic, and other dangerous pollutants over the course of several decades. Although the plant closed in 2015, it left behind heavy contamination in an estimated 10,000 homes across several communities.

To advance community cleanup efforts and provide jobs for residents living near the former Exide plant, WRUC provides a 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response course and lead awareness training through a state-led workforce development initiative. Through this initiative, trainees gain skills in identifying chemical and environmental hazards; implementing proper sampling procedures and hazard controls; using personal protective equipment; and developing site safety plans.

Ultimately, the training has created new job opportunities for people who might otherwise be unemployed and equipped the workforce to more safely address contamination problems. At least 20 graduates have been hired by contractors to conduct soil sampling and lead assessment fieldwork in communities near the former plant.

The second phase of this initiative is currently getting off the ground. WRUC is partnering with the state and local community members to remediate an estimated 2,500 of the most severely impacted properties.

Protecting fenceline communities near refineries

Another area of WRUC’s work focuses on protecting fenceline communities that are affected by emissions from refineries and other industrial facilities. Richmond, California is a city where 15 refineries are located within a densely populated area. In 2012, a large fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond resulted in more than 15,000 nearby residents seeking medical treatment for respiratory symptoms, headaches, and other issues.

Seeking to prevent similar events in the future, WRUC organized a collaborative in the area between the Blue-Green Alliance and other labor and community groups. Through this collaborative, WRUC conducted training with community members and workers to facilitate greater awareness of the impact of hazardous exposures on both workers and the surrounding Richmond community.

As part of a separate initiative in Southern California, WRUC facilitated a training, called “Building Bridges: Safety of Refinery Workers and Community Members,” for workers and fenceline communities adjacent to refineries to support a shared understanding of worker and community protection.

These initiatives have helped build a foundation to support stronger worker and community standards. For example, at the regional level, Latina leaders who received training now serve as resources to inform their communities about the impact of hazardous exposures on their health, and the importance of becoming involved in the local policy process.

At the state level, worker and community advocates recently celebrated the passage of a stronger Cal/OSHA Process Safety Management standard in 2017, along with a companion community standard that provides avenues for greater worker participation to identify hazards and create transparency in the community. “This standard will enable workers to play a greater part in identifying problems to help prevent future disasters, like the Chevron oil refinery fire in Richmond, California,” said Delp.

In the future, WRUC seeks to expand community-based outreach, education, and research efforts. “Our goal is to help workers and community members build skills to document toxic exposures and find a seat at the table with other stakeholders,” said Delp. “When we bring people together, we gain an ability to constructively and effectively organize for better working and community conditions.”

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