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In The Field: Bringing Chemical Safety to Austin's Workers

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Austin’s famous nightlife -- think South by Southwest, or the X Games -- fuels a thriving hospitality industry that employs thousands of workers at hotels spattered across the city. Alma Galván, MCH, Senior Program Manager for MCN, says maintenance and cleaning workers in hotels are one group of workers that is regularly exposed to chemicals on the job -- and those workers’ health is at risk without proper training and protection. Last week, Galván headed to Austin to work alongside co-facilitator Leslie Diaz, LMSW, MCN’s Health Network Associate and Coordinator of the Austin Ventanilla de Salud, to train community health workers on chemical safety and workers’ rights and responsibilities among specific groups of workers, including hotel cleaners.

“There are lot of different factors that can lead to illness and injury from chemicals in the workplace,” Galván delineated. “Workers are often not trained. They may also not feel they need to wear personal protective equipment -- like gloves and masks -- because it interferes with their ability to do the work fast.” Hotel cleaners are under pressure to clean a set of rooms over a specific period of time, leading workers to increase their speed and, at times, also increase their risk. Compounding the risk are language barriers and cultural divides.


Deliana Garcia, Leslie Diaz and Alma Galván at the Ventanilla de Salud in Austin, Texas

Left to right: Deliana Garcia, Leslie Diaz and Alma Galván at the Ventanilla de Salud in Austin, Texas


Hotel workers aren’t alone in their risk of chemical exposure. Galván and Diaz also dove into other categories of workers: restaurant employees, farmworkers, landscapers, and construction workers.

“We focused a lot on how CHWs can communicate the risk and help workers minimize their risk, and how we have to tailor the message for each group,” Galván explained. The facilitators also covered rights and responsibilities for employees and employers.

The in-person training took place at Austin’s Ventanilla de Salud, a program housed within Consulate Generals of Mexico in each of the 50 states that provides health resources, counseling, and referrals to local health services. Last week’s training comes after a nationwide webinar in which Galván and Diaz provided a virtual chemical safety training for health promoters at Ventanilla offices around the country. In April, MCN will be at it again as the duo heads to Dallas for a national meeting of Ventanilla coordinators, where they will be presenting topics first covered in the January webinar. The in-person training will dive into the topics in greater depth. All three safety trainings are supported by a Susan Harwood Training Grant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The Ventanilla is such a key point of information dissemination for the Spanish-speaking community, as many consider consulates an extension of their homes,” Diaz explained.


Leslie Diaz speaking with attendee

Leslie Diaz speaking with attendee


Diaz will continue to bring chemical safety to the Austin Ventanilla, providing ongoing trainings in the coming months directly to local workers and employers. “These employees are what keep our infrastructure going. This is why it is so necessary that we work to keep important safety information in their hands,” Diaz emphasized. “We are one part of a system that helps them maintain their health for themselves and for the community at large.”

You can follow Leslie’s work at the Ventanilla de Salud in Austin on Facebook.


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