In the Field: Outreach Workers Offer Chemical Safety in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico
In May and June, outreach workers from Polyclinic Castañer, a community health center in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, took to the streets with the goal of training local workers on the various chemical exposures to which they may exposed on the job. The occupational health and safety training program was part of MCN’s Susan Harwood Training Grant for capacity building from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Over the course of two months, Mariela Vera, Brenda Rosado, and Zuleyka Camacho provided trainings to 161 workers at various locations in their community, giving critical and tailored chemical safety information to local supermarket workers, school dining hall cooks, school janitors, construction workers, farmworkers, trash collectors, and gas station attendants. The outreach workers noted that the work was highly successful, with employers across the board showing eagerness to find the time for their workers to attend and showing gratitude for the trainings. Here, Mariela Vera B. Serrano, Outreach, Enrollment, and Events Coordinator at Polyclinic Castañer, Adjuntas, answers some questions about the diverse trainings and their impact on her community in Puerto Rico.
Where did you hold the trainings? How many trainings did you do?
Sixteen trainings were carried out at the Castañer Polyclinic, in Adjuntas. So far, a total of 161 workers have been reached. The trainings took place in different areas: we visited gas stations, buildings, various schools where both maintenance staff and dining staff were involved. We also visited restaurants and supermarkets where staff from different departments -- the meat counter, janitorial, kitchen, etc. -- were all trained. Back at the polyclinic, we provided trainings for farmers, kitchen workers, and cleaners, while we also trained all the clinic and pharmacy staff. We also visited beauty salons and barbershops.
The variety of professions that received the trainings is remarkable! How did you serve so many people in such a short timeframe?
On each day, we could managed to visit up to three workplaces since there was not much distance between them. In some places, we arrived as soon as they opened their doors, and they allowed us to give the training straight away. In other places, we made an appointment with a specific date and time when it was more convenient to take their employees out of the area.
Did you target specific populations or open it up to all? Why did you decide to open it so widely?
We started with the school cafeterias. There were four schools where, in addition to the dining employees, the maintenance staff was trained. After that, we realize we could venture through the different locations [to encourage as many workers as possible to join the training across departments] and [the employers] received us very well. We did it this way since this technique worked extraordinarily well and consequently we were able to fulfill our expectations and meet our training goal..We prepared different educational facts sheets on Safety with Chemicals. As all the places that we visited worked with chemicals, each training sheet was adapted to the place visited.
Is there a story that could be shared by any of the participants, where the worker was surprised by the information or that has impacted you and that has commented to you?
In one location, an employee told us that he had no ventilation in his work area and the smell of chemicals gave him headaches and dizziness. We observed that there are many workplaces where employees are not provided with the basic protective equipment and we and the employees as well were surprised to see that not even masks were provided by their employers.
What is the situation like there, in terms of trainings, awareness around chemical safety, and frequency of visits to the clinic because of incidents?
The employees had some knowledge about chemicals, but not about the damage that they can do to their long-term health and how to protect themselves. There really have not been many cases [of chemical exposure] in recent months. The Adjuntas Polyclinic doesn’t have an emergency room, therefore people who have a reaction to chemical exposure visit the General Castañer Hospital, since the emergency room is located there.
Do you plan to give some kind of follow-up after training?
Of course, we will follow up and continue to guide not only the workers but also our patients. Safety with Chemicals is a very important issue for the community since many people are not aware of the danger that chemicals can cause to their health.
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