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What Does Engineering Have to do With Public Health?

Brunette Promotes Worker Safety to Students and Faculty in Lima, Perú

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Maria Brunette led a large health and safety research study of manufacturing workers at Yobel SCM, a company in Lima, Perú.

By Karen Angelo

What does engineering have to do with public health? A lot, according to Assoc. Prof. Maria Brunette of Work Environment, an expert in human factors engineering.

“We are the ones who design manufacturing lines and workstations where people sit or stand, doing repetitive motions every day,” says Brunette. “When I worked as an industrial engineer more than 15 years ago, it was a surprising concept that engineers could improve worker health as well as quality and productivity. I wanted to take a pro-worker approach to designing systems that minimize health impacts.” 

Her desire to combine her expertise with protecting worker health stems from her early years witnessing people working long hours in tough conditions on manufacturing lines in a company in Perú, her home country. During her recent sabbatical as a visiting faculty member in the College of Engineering at the University of Lima, Perú, she returned to the same company and found solutions for workers. She used a ‘participatory’ research approach that engaged workers, supervisors and managers. 

“As a faculty member at UMass Lowell for 10 years, I took a step back and asked myself if I could help people working under harsh working conditions. “I wanted to use this time to advance my scholarship abroad by teaching, learning and conducting real-world research to guide my future research and to bring home a fresh perspective to my students.” 

While in Perú, she taught work design and occupational safety courses to industrial engineering undergraduates, trained engineering faculty on applied research methods and conducted research at Yobel SCM, a large worldwide manufacturer of consumer goods where Brunette worked in 1994. The company has grown significantly, now employing more than 3,500 blue-collar workers. 

The research team from Yobel SCM, UMass Lowell and the University of Lima collected feedback from employees on how work affects their physical and mental health –– ranging from how equipment is used to the quality of relationships with supervisors and managers. Brunette took on the role of research facilitator, a strategy that engaged company engineering and quality managers as partners in conducting the survey and focus groups. 

“This partnership model between industry and academia worked because management took ownership of the results by being involved in every step,” she says. “They recognized the business problems that needed to be solved such as high turnover, they helped design the questionnaires and focus groups and they took the results seriously, resulting in improvements in the workplace.” 

The initial feedback shows that many employees have physical pain from sitting in metal chairs in small cramped spaces for long hours. From a social perspective, many workers reported that management does not give them basic respect. As one worker said, “we know we’re nothing but they should still say ‘good morning.’”

Brunette is continuing to work with the company and university on interventions even though she is back at UMass Lowell. The company has assembled a team that includes supervisors, engineers and workers to improve worker satisfaction and health. Engineering undergraduate students from the University of Lima will also be joining the research team. 

Brunette has integrated her experience and ongoing research into her UMass Lowell ergonomics classes, bringing real-world learning to her students. 

She says: “From this experience, I’ve developed case studies and a new syllabus. I show videos that I took of the manufacturing plant and present data from the focus groups. Next spring, I’ll also be incorporating this research into a new Global Health class.” 

Partnership Formed With the University of Lima 

Provost Ahmed Abdelal signed an agreement of collaboration with Cesar Vialardi, vice-chancellor of the University of Lima in June 2012. The goal is to exchange research and teaching activities between faculty and students and to develop a summer exchange experience for both.