On Research

The "On Research" blog has been discontinued, but Safety+Health now publishes Q&As with Journal of Safety Research contributors under that name.

Occupational illnesses: ‘Families shouldn’t have to deal with those events’

March 20, 2014

Amid all the back-and-forth between supporters and critics of OSHA’s proposed rule to reduce the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica, it’s easy to forget that real lives are at stake – and in some cases, already lost.

Paul Personette, director of environmental, health, safety and security at UCI-Fram Group in Lake Forest, IL, reminded me of this sad fact during a conversation about his motivation for entering the safety profession.

Personette was one of almost 1,000 Safety+Health subscribers who completed the magazine’s annual Job Outlook survey. The survey gave respondents an opportunity to describe their path to becoming an occupational safety and health professional, and Personette’s answer intrigued me: He said his father and grandfather had suffered from occupational illnesses, and “families shouldn’t have to deal with those events.”

In a follow-up conversation, he told me his grandfather died from complications of silica exposure after spending nearly two decades inhaling finely ground silica at a plant that made cement and grout.

“My grandfather passed away when I was 10,” Personette said. “And my father, this disease will take him.” Personette’s father worked at the same plant for 43 years, and now has silicosis. He’s on oxygen 24/7 to help him breathe.

Personette is following the progress of the silica rule closely and agrees with OSHA’s proposal to cut the PEL in half. “As a matter of fact, I would go [stricter] than that if I could. There’s no reason to have anybody exposed to silica,” he said.

Noting that his father has lost both his kidneys and developed an enlarged heart since becoming sick, Personette said silicosis can “progressively eat away at people.”

His father wasn’t officially diagnosed with the lung disease until 2001. Doctors at first thought his father had asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, even though X-rays showed scarring in his lungs in 1977, Personette said.

His journey to becoming a safety professional started when his father was still relatively healthy. Personette had planned on being a teacher and graduated with a degree in history, but decided to enter a graduate program in safety based on dinnertime conversations with his father, who had moved from management to safety.

As Personette recalled, “He just said if you want to make an impact on people … move into the safety field.” And his father still seeks to make an impact – he’s in the process of publishing a short book about his experience that will be titled “Dusty Trades.”

The opinions expressed in "On Research" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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