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Kelechi Adejumo

Kelechi Adejumo, Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology

“We don’t have a comprehensive occupational health and safety movement in my country, so that’s what drove me to come to UMass Lowell.”

When Kelechi Adejumo worked as a physical therapist in Abuja, Nigeria, she saw patients with low back pain on a revolving-door basis, even when they followed their prescribed exercise routines faithfully. She began to suspect that many of their injuries were work-related.

“Even when clients get better, they come back in a couple of months with the same problem,” she says. “I started thinking about the best way to approach this.”

She decided to join her husband, a doctor studying biomedical engineering at UMass Lowell, and earn a master’s degree in occupational ergonomics and safety. That was in 2013, and now she’s on her way to a doctoral degree in the Department of Work Environment.

“We don’t have a comprehensive occupational health and safety movement in my country, so that’s what drove me to come to UMass Lowell,” she says.

After her first semester, she got two, part-time research assistantships – one in her department, working with Prof. Laura Punnett on the Safe Resident Handling Program, and the other through the Center for Community Research and Engagement, working on the Healthy Homes project with Research Prof. David Turcotte. Since fall 2014, she has been a full-time research assistant for Healthy Homes.

Under a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant, she visits seniors with asthma living in public housing and looks for asthma triggers, from poor ventilation to pests. She collects data and educates clients – and can also improve their apartments, ordering electric ranges to replace leaky gas stoves (paid for by the grant) and helping them with low-toxicity pest control. She also works on a Lowell lead abatement program, visiting low-income families in homes built before 1978 and evaluating dangers from lead paint and mold to electrical hazards. Again, she can provide families with everything from kitchen fire extinguishers to replacements for broken electrical outlet covers, with the costs covered by another HUD grant. She also helps train community health workers, nurses and code inspectors in what to look for when evaluating patients or clients in their home environments.

Her master’s degree research involved photographing nursing home aides doing ordinary housekeeping tasks and patient care, then analyzing their postures and workload in order to predict compressive forces on the spine. She found that aides are almost as likely to suffer back injuries from ordinary housekeeping tasks as from heavier tasks, like lifting patients.

“The sad thing is that a lot of these nursing aides are older,” she said. “They suffer from cumulative high compressive forces on their spines.”

As she works on her doctoral degree, Adejumo is trying to find an interdisciplinary approach that will combine her home-based and workplace research.

“I’m looking for opportunities to bring the two together in a holistic way,” she says.

Adejumo hopes to return to Nigeria someday, although she expects a lot of resistance from both individuals and businesses to the introduction of comprehensive health and safety measures.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” she says. “But I feel like you can always start from somewhere – even if it’s just teaching in high school that there’s such a thing as occupational and home health and safety.”