January 29, 2019
Sherry Baron, M.D., an NIEHS-funded occupational physician and public health researcher, strives to make work practices and workplaces safer, especially for disadvantaged populations. According to Baron, one of every three workers in the United States is a low wage worker and makes less than 12 dollars per hour. These workers are more likely to be exposed to hazards on the job.
Baron initially became interested in worker health during an undergraduate internship with a network of rural community health clinics serving coal miners. Since then, she has made it her life’s work to document the environmental hazards of low-wage workers and develop successful interventions to protect their health.
“I wanted to have a career where I could improve social justice,” Baron said. “I was drawn to occupational health because it was an area of medicine where I could be directly engaged with communities around issues that were important to them.”
Using Community Partnerships to Reach Immigrant Workers
Before becoming a professor of Occupational and Environmental Health at the City University of New York (CUNY), Baron spent 25 years as a researcher at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). She had a distinguished career at NIOSH where she won several awards for her work championing occupational health for low-wage, immigrant workers. She also collaborated with NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on an environmental justice initiative called Partnerships for Communication (1994-2007), which added an occupational justice focus.
Baron also served as the coordinator for the NIOSH Occupational Health Disparities program where she helped to shift the thinking about how best to reach low-wage and immigrant workers. She found that community partnerships were much more effective than the traditional occupational health model of trying to reach low-wage workers through their workplace. “Focusing on the community and developing workplace exposure reduction programs with community partnerships has been very successful in reaching a whole group of workers that we haven’t successfully reached in the past.” Baron stated.
Building Capacity to Protect Workers' Health During Disasters
Baron applied her community-based research approach at CUNY and the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment to explore how environmental exposures at the workplace and in the community can impact health.
For example, she led a research effort following Superstorm Sandy that documented the health impact of that disaster on Latinx workers who provided clean up and reconstruction efforts. (The term Latinx is now used instead of Latino or Latina to be inclusive of all genders.) Baron also designed a community engaged intervention effort to raise the profile of local immigrant community-based organizations in the New York City (NYC) disaster preparedness planning process. This work led to ongoing funding to assist community-based Latinx worker centers in developing their own capacity to conduct effective Spanish-language training to inform workers about their rights to safe workplaces.
Involving the Community to Reduce Exposure to Toxic Cleaners
Baron and her team are in the initial stages of an NIEHS Research to Action project to reduce exposure to toxic cleaning chemical products among low-wage Latinx immigrants. They are partnering with the largest Latinx immigrant community-based organization in NYC, Make the Road New York, to survey Latinx domestic cleaning workers about cleaning product use.
“Community partnerships are incredibly important for good science and for helping build capacity within community-based organizations on issues of environmental sciences.” Baron emphasized. In collaboration with co-principal investigator Homero Harari, Sc.D., researcher and assistant professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, the team is not only developing exposure measure methodology, they are also using citizen science and involving community members in the exposure assessment process.
Looking to the future, Baron is excited to find new ways to engage the communities she works with. For example, she plans to continue to build awareness about environmental exposures among communities using citizen science approaches, such as using smart phone applications for workers to document dangerous working conditions.