Interdisciplinary center focuses on improving workers’ health

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With rates of diseases such as diabetes and obesity on the rise across the country, experts from a variety of fields are currently researching one particularly concerning area of American health: the country’s professional workers.

UC Berkeley’s Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, created in 2012 and located in the Haas School of Business, has brought together more than 60 researchers, most of them affiliated with the University of California, to conduct studies using different methodologies to determine what factors most strongly affect worker health.

The center relies on the collaboration of professionals from fields including public policy, environmental design, architecture and engineering, among others.

On Jan. 16, the center hosted a mixer at the University Club in Memorial Stadium, bringing together approximately 50 professionals and company representatives from various fields to come up with solutions to create healthy workspaces.

According to Sheldon Zedeck, associate director of the ICHW and professor in the department of psychology, the range of fields brings different perspectives to the issue of unhealthy workspace environments.

“Clinical psychologists might tell you a healthy workplace means a stress-free workplace; someone else might say it has to do with job satisfaction,” Zedeck said. “Everybody you speak to from different disciplines has a different definition of a healthy workplace.”

For David Rempel, a professor in the department of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, part of what creates a healthy workspace is its actual physical design. As director of the ergonomics program at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, Rempel said his lab focuses on designing better work tools and stations such as forearm supports that will reduce upper-body pain and prevent musculoskeletal disorders for workers who use a computer for more than 20 hours per week.

Rempel, who has been involved with ICHW for the past six months, explained that his decision to get involved with the center not only supports his research interests but also makes sense given the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“These days, in order to make advancements, you need interdisciplinary action,” Rempel said. “All of our skills are most important when used together.”

According to a report summarizing the events at the mixer released by ICHW, the event consisted of structured talks and presentations to engage the attendees in conversation. The report also stated that representatives from companies such as Toyota, Google and Safeway discussed their policies regarding the well-being of their workers.

The center plans to hold another mixer in June to expand research possibilities, with the ultimate goal being to hold an international conference to turn worker health reform into a global initiative.

“We want (the center) to be a repository,” said Cristina Banks, director and founder of the ICHW and senior lecturer at the Haas School of Business, in an email. “If someone wants information on healthy workplaces, they can come to us.”

Contact Pooja Mhatre and Michelle Pitcher at [email protected].