NIOSH Education and Research Centers: Research

Posted on by Negar Omid, PhD and Michelle McDaniel, BS, CHES

As discussed in a previous NIOSH Science Blog, NIOSH Education and Research Centers: Training, there are 18 NIOSH-funded Education and Research Centers (ERCs) that engage in meaningful research, training, and outreach activities across 17 states. In honor of the 45th anniversary of the ERCs, this blog will highlight research activities conducted by the ERCs. The interdisciplinary nature of the centers gives rise to a broad spectrum of research priorities that range from mechanistic studies investigating workplace exposures to studies on healthcare disparities to the effects of psychosocial factors on worker health and wellbeing. As national priorities shift and adapt, so do many of the research priorities across the ERCs. Below is a summary of research highlights from the various ERCs.

ERC Research Highlights

Mark Schall, Associate Professor and Occupational Safety and Ergonomics program director at Auburn University, part of the Deep South Center ERC at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, led a study comparing occupational exposures to non-neutral postures and movement speeds between manufacturing workers completing cyclic (or repeated) job tasks and those performing non-cyclic work. The results of the study indicated substantially higher upper arm and trunk movement speeds among workers performing predominantly cyclic tasks relative to workers performing non-cyclic tasks despite similar postures, and greater exposure variability both between and within workers in the non-cyclic group. The findings may have important implications for those interested in job rotation as an intervention to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. Click here for more information.

During the spring of 2020, the Labor of Occupational Health Program (LOHP) Director at the Northern California Center for Occupational and Environmental Health ERC at University of California, Berkeley was contacted by the local Union representing grocery workers who had concerns about the safety of workers at grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. This group of essential workers were voicing multiple concerns around their safety. In response, seven faculty members and students from six programs (LOHP, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, Occupational Epidemiology, Targeted Research Training, Industrial Hygiene, and Ergonomics) put together a team to collect data on over 1200 grocery store workers throughout the state. Some of the important findings included workers’ fear for their personal safety by engaging with aggressive customers (71%), concern for being at higher risk of getting COVID-19 due to their job (84%), and their increased workload (72%). These risks were taking a toll on the mental health of these essential workers with 70% reporting feeling anxious, 55% feeling depressed, 35% reporting physical reactions consistent with a panic attack over the prior week and 60% reported no effort by their stores to support their mental health despite these enormous challenges. The results were shared with policy makers in the state considering legislation regarding expanded sick pay, hazard pay, and the “right to know” when a co-worker is diagnosed with COVID-19. AB685 was passed which requires employers to provide notice to employees and local health departments about positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace. Click here for more information.

Research from the Southern California ERC at the University of California, Los Angeles, examined health disparities among hotel room cleaners and found strong associations with job stress, time pressure, physical workload, work intensification, ergonomic problems, and lack of supervisor support. These studies have helped hotel workers negotiate new labor contracts that reduced workloads (the number of rooms to be cleaned per workday) for hotel room cleaners in San Francisco, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. Additionally, this research led to a proposed ergonomic standard for hotel house-keeping workers that resulted in the adoption of a new hotel room cleaner Cal/Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard contained in Section 3345 in Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations. The standard is intended to control the risk of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders to housekeepers in hotels and other lodging establishments. Click here for more information.

The University of Cincinnati ERC has developed the On-Demand Active Cooling (ODAC) Textile System,  an intelligent fabric composition that offers integrated cooling and respirating function. This solution effectively protects firefighters by providing cooling to reduce heat stress. Current wearable cooling solutions require firefighters to be removed from active duty when they experience heat exhaustion. ODAC provides an automatic cooling system that can extend their period of service and keep them safer longer. The prototype is a vest design based on a positive pressure system which respirates and cools upon activation prior to the  firefighters’ arrival on the scene, mitigating the increases in body temperatures that lead to heat stress or hyperthermia. ODAC is a lightweight super strong material that can wick sweat, spread heat, sense the environment, and even harvest energy (e.g., using smart textile advanced material to conduct energy for imbedded electronics). This functionality is a result of the Carbon Nanotube Hybrid materials that are embedded and used in combination with advanced spacer-knit fabric technology and integrated electronics and communication. For more information click here and here.

Lupita Montoya, PhD was awarded a pilot project grant from the Mountain & Plains ERC at the University of Colorado, Denver in 2016. Her project addressed the burden of workers in nail salons who are exposed to toxic chemicals known to cause skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, allergies, neurological issues, reproductive complications, and cancer. Dr. Montoya’s project characterized the airborne formaldehyde and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) emissions from common products used in nail salons. Further, her research team examined the effectiveness of low-cost, passive removal methods to clean the air in nail salons, finding that VOCs could be removed with cost-effective methods. Click here for more information.

Evidence has demonstrated beneficial effects of a Mediterranean Diet-based healthy lifestyle (HLS) on firefighters’ health and fitness. Based on the theoretical framework of the HLS, Stefanos N. Kales MD, MPH, and his team at the Harvard T.H. Chan ERC at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health developed a MEDI-Lifestyle score to measure HLS behaviors among firefighter recruits. The score includes BMI, smoking history, dietary pattern, physical activity, sedentary behavior, daily sleep time, and afternoon naps. The research team found a greater adherence to an HLS, measured by the MEDI-Lifestyle score, was associated with lower hypertension and a greater probability of high aerobic capacity among New England firefighter recruits. The same research team followed a cohort of new firefighters in New England and observed their health and HLS behavioral change throughout academy training and until up to two years after they graduated from academies. The preliminary results show new firefighters’ health and HLS behavioral benefits gained from academy training dissipated after they started their firefighting career. For more information click here and here.

In 2004, the Great Lakes Center for Occupational Health and Safety (GLC-OHS) ERC at the University of Illinois Chicago was one of the first centers in the country to support occupational research into the hazards and occupational health outcomes among street corner day laborers through its Targeted Research Training program. At the time, GLC-OHS Outreach Director, Dr. Leslie Nickels, and Occupational Medicine faculty, Dr. Susan Buchanan, developed a relationship with the Latino Union workers’ center to conduct interviews on the street corners and parking lots where workers gathered. After this work was published, outreach to other worker centers in the Chicago area expanded, and funded research evaluating workplace health risks, interventions and the epidemiology of precarious workers’ occupational experience has been on-going since. Building on this research which identified a lack of safety training among street corner day-laborers, community based participatory research methods were used in the “More Than Training” project, which leveraged national worker center resources to test capacity development for worker centers, their members, and allies. The project reached 500 workers who received OSHA 10-hour training cards, and the sessions were held in Spanish with Spanish speaking peer educators and authorized OSHA trainers. Click here for more information.

As new research emerged on the physical and mental health impacts of COVID-19 work-from-home mandates, researchers from the University of Iowa Heartland Center for Occupational Safety and Health ERC and other collaborating institutions administered the longitudinal UI Employee Well-Being Survey. The survey included several validated measures of mental health, well-being, and occupational stress, as well as inquires on musculoskeletal pain, and home office environment and equipment use. Results suggest that employees with access to adjustable office chairs with arm rests and work environments that allow alternations between sitting and standing postures have a 38%-56% decreased odds of reporting musculoskeletal pain when compared to employees that do not have these same home-office features. Overall, the study provides tangible, low-cost, suggestions for home-office improvements that can reduce employee musculoskeletal pain and improve the overall health and well-being of remote employees. Click here for more information (page 6 of the report).

Dr. Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor in the Occupational and Environmental Hygiene program at the Johns Hopkins ERC at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examined the level of phthalates in a group of Black and Latinx hairdressers. Phthalates are a class of synthetic chemicals  developed in the 1920s to make plastics more malleable and durable, and can leach out into the environment. Repeated exposure to Phthalates happens by eating or drinking products that contain certain flavor compounds, by skin absorption, or by breathing in chemicals released in the air.  This constant exposure may cause endocrine disruptions, reproductive effects, cancer and other health issues. Dr. Lesliam’s research compared metabolite levels for nine different kinds of phthalates after Black and Latinx hairdressers ended their shifts. Compared to office workers and the general population, hairdressers had elevated levels of six different types of phthalates.  Further, hairdressers who performed services such as chemical straightening, Brazilian blowouts and bleaching had double the phthalate levels than those who did not. Her research was mentioned in an article in Environmental Health News. Click here for more information.

The  Central Appalachian Regional ERC (CARERC) at the University of Kentucky supported current Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC) epidemiologist Mira Mirzaian in her studies for her MPH in Occupational Epidemiology. Ms. Mirzaian conducted her MPH research on workers′ compensation reported injuries among distillery industry workers which was recently published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (Mirzaian M, Sanderson W, Browning S, Bunn T. AJIM 65(6):483–491). Kentucky ranks first in distillery industry production and employment in the United States, yet little has been published pertaining to worker injuries and mortality in the distillery industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that distillery workers experience a rate of work‐related injury 68% higher than the national average. Mirzaian’s study showed that most injuries in the distillery industry were due to contact with objects or machinery, bodily reaction, and overexertion, in particular among workers involved in the cleaning, filling, and transportation of heavy wooden barrels. Being able to work with a large data set like workers’ compensation data, conducting a thorough analysis, and communicating the results of the research effectively were essential to Mirzaian joining the injury epidemiology workforce. “These skills allowed me to demonstrate career readiness, in turn assisting me in obtaining my job as an epidemiologist at KIPRC,” said Mirzaian. Click here for more information.

The Apple Hearing Study is a partnership between the University of Michigan Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering ERC and Apple to study sound exposure and its impact on hearing health. This study will advance understanding of how hearing could be impacted over time by exposure to sound at certain levels. The study will provide a better understanding of listening behavior and its overall impact on hearing health. This information will, in turn, help guide public health policy and prevention programs designed to protect and promote hearing health in the US and globally. Click here for more information.

The Midwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety ERC at University of Minnesota MS students Nancy Bergman and Kurt Prieve, and Dr. Raynor (IH) studied the use of advanced air nozzles to control noise levels in industrial settings. Ms. Bergman found that installation of advanced air nozzles on a punch press reduced noise dose by 50-75%. Mr. Prieve measured average sound level reductions of about 9 dB when air guns with advanced nozzles replaced existing conventional air guns. In both cases, the greatest reductions were observed for frequencies greater than 1,000 Hz, to which human hearing is most sensitive and where the greatest damage from excessive noise occurs. Large manufacturers are using these findings to make changes in air nozzles in their manufacturing environments in order to reduce noise exposures. Click here for more information.

To estimate the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission among students and teachers in New York City public schools, the largest school system in the U.S., a CUNY School of Public health team led by industrial hygiene program director Brian Pavilonis of the New York/New Jersey ERC assessed 101 classrooms in 19 NYC schools to identify school and classroom factors that impact transmission risk. The researchers found the probability of transmission to be generally low, but it varied by scenario. Transmission rates were higher during the heating season (i.e., the winter months) and in newer buildings and lower in schools with mechanical ventilation. Surprisingly, schools located in older buildings and lower-income neighborhoods had lower transmission probabilities, likely due to the greater outdoor airflow associated with older, draftier buildings. Despite the generally low risk of school-based transmission found in this study, the team warned that that risk would increase given the rising prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 at the time. The results of the study were published in Environmental Research. Click here for more information.

Researchers at the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health ERC (NC OSHERC), are conducting cutting-edge research in biologic, genetic and epigenetic markers of occupational exposures to isocyanates in the automotive paint industry. Isocyanates are respiratory and skin sensitizers that are one of the main causes of occupational asthma globally. Dr. Leena Nylander-French, Director of NC OSHERC, along with current and former NIOSH trainees have conducted extensive work over the past decade to inform future research on the mechanism of allergic airway sensitization by isocyanates and to aid in the development of mitigation strategies to better protect worker health. For more information click here and here.

Dr. Tammy Allen, Occupational Health Psychology Program Director at the University of South Florida at the Sunshine ERC was part of the National Academy of Science (NAS) Commissioned Paper on the Impacts of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine.  The paper builds upon the information and data in the recent NASEM report, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in STEMM. One chapter concerns boundary management and dependent care issues, topics Dr. Allen has been studying for many years. This fast-track study focused on early indicators of the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers of women in academic science, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). The objectives of the study were to identify and analyze disruptions experienced by women in STEMM academic careers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways in which COVID-19 is amplifying the disruptions encountered by women in STEMM academic careers. The research team collected survey data from over 700 tenure track women in STEMM across the United States. Women reported a significant reduction in their ability to control the boundary between work and nonwork after the start of the pandemic. In addition, women with childcare responsibilities reported significantly less boundary control than their counterparts without children. The full report is available to the public here.

The Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health ERC at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston examined the association between occupational exposures and asthma among healthcare workers (HCWs) in the research project Asthma in Texas Healthcare Workers II . Results from a similar study, performed by the same researchers (George Delclos, MD, MPH, PhD and David Gimeno, PhD), in 2003, indicated that risk of asthma after entry into a healthcare profession was significantly increased for tasks involving medical instrument cleaning and disinfection, general cleaning, use of powdered latex gloves, and the administration of aerosolized medications. Since the first study completed in 2007, healthcare-related practices have changed, as have the use of certain products. The current study will assess whether recent changes in healthcare practices and exposures have affected the prevalence and impact of WRA among HCWs in Texas.  Click here for more information.

At the University of Utah, researchers from the Ergonomics and Safety program, part of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational & Environmental Health ERC, in collaboration with University of Utah Robotics Center, are developing new artificial intelligence techniques to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. The researchers introduced ergonomically intelligent physical human-robot interaction (HRI) and teleoperation, which includes new methods for posture estimation, risk assessment, postural optimization, and postural correction solely using the interacting robotic input device. Their intelligent and low-cost system benefits from artificial intelligence, machine learning, probabilistic modeling, and planning techniques. In postural estimation, this approach uses only the trajectory of the interacting robot to estimate the human’s posture with enough accuracy compared to motion capture. In addition, the researchers introduced DULA (differentiable upper limb assessment), a differentiable and continuous ergonomics model, learned by a neural network, a type of machine learning that uses nodes, or artificial neurons, to simulate the human brain and thus imitate the way neurons signal to each other. The DULA model expands the use of risk assessment methods such as the RULA (rapid upper limb assessment) and allows its use in gradient-based postural optimization for calculating the optimal postural correction in different types of physical human-robot interaction and teleoperation tasks. The scientists also we introduced a new autonomous approach for ergonomics intervention and postural correction in teleoperation using the leader robot while the user continues performing the task. Click here for more information.

The Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety (NWCOHS) ERC  at the University of Washington faculty and students are  researching the occupational health risks due to large regional wildfire events and ways to mitigate the effects of wildlife smoke. Research projects included evaluating training programs designed to improving efficacy of N95 masks when used in community settings, evaluating the efficacy of indoor HEPA air cleaners in reducing wildfire smoke exposures indoors, and analyzing data on wildlife smoke exposure among Washington State construction workers. NWCOHS Deputy Director, Dr. June Spector, who co-leads the Science for Nature and People Partnership, focused on developing a consensus-driven, evidence-based approach to integrate human health considerations into spatial and temporal planning for forest management in the Western U.S. Some of these efforts are highlighted in this University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health feature, The risk is real.

The research from the ERCs is having a real-world impact in improving the lives of America’s workers. The ERCs are making important contributions to the field of occupational safety and health, and we look forward to seeing what will be accomplished in the next 45 years.


Negar Omidakhsh, PhD, is Assistant Director of the Southern California Education and Research Center (SCERC) located across two University of California campuses, UC Los Angeles and UC Irvine.

Michelle McDaniel, BS, CHES, is the Director of the Continuing Education program at the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health ERC at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health.


This blog is part of a series for the 45th anniversary of the ERC program.  See blogs on ERC training, the ERC webinar series, and look for an upcoming blog on ERC outreach.


Posted on by Negar Omid, PhD and Michelle McDaniel, BS, CHES

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Page last reviewed: August 17, 2022
Page last updated: August 17, 2022