Workplace Chemical Exposure Study Leads to Small Business COVID-19 Awareness Campaign

Feb 16, 2021

TUCSON, Ariz. — Small business owners can take advantage of one-on-one training in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, thanks to a project led by researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences in collaboration with the Sonora Environmental Resources Institute (SERI) and El Rio Health.

A summa cannister collects air samples at a beauty salon. (Photo: Sonora Environmental Resources Institute Inc.)The first training will take place during a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 6:30 p.m. The Facebook Live event is open to any small business owner. SERI will host more Facebook Live events this spring, with additional outreach to include video chats and phone calls with tele-promotoras, or online community health workers.

“COVID-19 has amplified occupational health disparities, particularly in small businesses and communities of color,” said Paloma Beamer, PhD, associate professor of community, environment and policy at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and a member of the BIO5 Institute. “Small businesses with LatinX workers are less likely to have access to health resources, including culturally and linguistically appropriate occupational health information and personal protective equipment, or PPE.”

This public health partnership augments Dr. Beamer’s larger study, “El Trabajo No Te Debe Dañar: (Work Should Not Hurt You): Reduction of Hazardous Exposures in Small Businesses through a Community Health Worker Intervention,” which seeks to expand awareness of hazardous chemicals and ways to reduce workplace exposures via community health worker interventions, particularly in beauty and auto shops. Both projects are funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a unit of the National Institutes of Health.

Paloma Beamer, PhD, associate professor of public health, leads an NIH-funded study on safe workplaces. (Photo: University of Arizona Health Sciences)

Dr. Beamer said LatinX small business owners may feel greater economic pressure to stay open during the pandemic, but often lack the resources in Spanish to support their decisions. The research team found that making information easily available online in multiple languages often is the best way to reach those in need, because they can look it up on their smartphone, tablet or a computer. To that end, COVID-19 resources in English and Spanish are now available through a SERI webpage, which also provides information on the larger study.

“Our project will enhance our relationship with our small business partners by responding to their immediate needs during COVID-19 and help them throughout the crisis,” said SERI Program Director Flor Sandoval, who oversees the institute’s Pollution Prevention Program for Small Businesses. “With a community-engaged research approach, we will first promote worker safety by developing a novel ‘tele-promotora’ program to share occupational health information with our small business partners.”

In addition to their outreach efforts, researchers will assess competing risk perceptions of COVID-19 between small business owners and their staff, as well as economic impacts and hazards of volatile organic chemical (VOC) exposures from new disinfection protocols due to the pandemic.

Researchers use a photoionization detector, a type of gas detector, to check for volatile organic compounds at a salon. (Photo: Sonora Environmental Resources Institute Inc.)

Beauty salons and auto repair businesses may use workplace products – such as coloring dyes and nail polish, or paints, lubricants and degreasers – that increase workers’ exposures to hazardous solvents that include VOCs. Such exposures can lead to asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are risk factors for COVID-19 complications.

Part of the larger research project focuses on monitoring VOCs using stationary and mobile air sampling equipment. Researchers use the results to suggest airflow changes and other workplace protocols aimed at reducing exposures.

The team recently published their first results in the journal BMC Public Health. In the paper, “Responsibility for chemical exposures: perspectives from small beauty salons and auto shops in southern metropolitan Tucson,” they noted that LatinX business owners and their staff may ignore risks of chemical exposures as a normal part of their workday due in part to vague or misleading product labels and instructions.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from SERI and the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health visited beauty salons in person to assess exposure risks. (Photo: Sonora Environmental Resources Institute Inc.)

“Many times the businesses we’re working with are so small the owners are there in the shop working as much as the employees,” Dr. Beamer said. “They may have health effects that might be related to their job and that their doctors even told them about, but that’s their job and that’s how they make their livelihood. So, they’re going to keep doing it anyway.”

“The tele-promotora program will help increase our small business partner worker’s education, literacy and computer skills to understand workplace hazards and effective control options,” she added. “It will provide essential information about new VOC exposures and risk perceptions in the wake of COVID-19.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a unit of the National Institutes of Health (R01ES028250).

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Photos available: https://arizona.app.box.com/s/f0lhgx0hh8ecu8yg5f13ymfpesatocsl

About the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health
Established in 2000, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona Health Sciences is the first nationally accredited college of public health in the Southwest. Today the college remains the only accredited college of public health in the state of Arizona, with campuses in Tucson and Phoenix. The college enrolls more than 1,100 students per year across degree programs at the bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctoral levels. Through research, education and community engagement, the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health continues to find solutions to public health problems in Arizona, the Southwest and globally. For more information: publichealth.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

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