Dr. Joe Zanoni, like many others, considers himself an accidental public health practitioner. He started his career as an early childhood/special education teacher in the 1980s. After he was laid off he returned to school, and entered a labor relations program in hopes that it would prepare him to provide training and education for businesses. This led him to work with labor unions, which in turn prepared him to work with various populations, from teaching health care workers about blood protections at dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis, to his current focus on the safety and health of immigrant day laborers. Dr. Zanoni has drawn upon these experiences and the educational philosophy of Paolo Frèire and others, to promote the importance of peer-led education. He is particularly proud of his research with workers’ centers. This work has shown how empowering immigrant workers – whose voices are often unheard and whose labor is markedly unregulated – can reduce their rates of death and injury on the job. We are pleased to profile Dr. Zanoni as one of our public health heroes.
Career in Profile:
- 1980: Completed his Bachelors of Science in Education, Disabilities at the University of Wisconsin
- 1980 – 1983: Special Education Teacher at the Madison Metropolitan School District, Madison, WI
- 1984 – 1986: Infant Care Provider at the Kunkle Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- 1986: Completed his Master of Industrial and Labor Relations at the University of Wisconsin
- 1987 – 1991: Research and Legislative Coordinator, Service Employees International Union, Local 150, Milwaukee, WI
- 1991 – 1997: International Senior Representative for Health and Safety, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Chicago
- 1998: Program Manager, Great Lakes Center for Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health, Chicago, IL
- 1998 – 2010: Associate Director of Continuing Education and Outreach, Illinois Occupational and Environmental Education and Research Center (IOEERC), University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health, Chicago, IL
- 2007 – 2010: Instructor at the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (EOHS), SPH-UIC
- 2010 – Completed his PhD in Education: Curriculum Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago
- 2010 – NOW: Research Assistant Professor, EOHS, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health
- 2011 – NOW: Director of Continuing Education and Outreach at the IOEERC, preparing masters and doctoral graduates to serve as occupational and environmental health professionals in the areas of industrial hygiene, nursing, medicine, safety and epidemiology
Can you tell us about a career highlight?
I’m really proud of the work that I’m doing with workers’ centers because there are so many things that are part of it. I’m most proud of my dissertation, and also the Charla work. Charla means “to converse, talk or chat” in Spanish. It’s a social learning process. I worked on a pilot study through the University of Illinois School of Public Health, where I learned about workers centers. These centers are community-based groups, and this brought our focus from unions to immigrant groups. We went to workers’ centers in Chicago and asked, “How do you like to learn?” Instead of offering them training, we wanted to know, “How can this be part of what you are doing?”
They said, “We don’t really want to come to a training session, we don’t want to be lectured at, we’d like to learn in some kind of informal chat…like a charla!” “What would that be like?” “Like sitting around doing different things, and then all of sudden we start talking about something.”
I thought “Wow, why don’t we delve into this?” So I worked with three different workers’ centers to create a team of people that set up Charlas that invite people to talk about health and safety on the job. The twist is that we’d do it in a communal setting. I found a Spanish-speaking, culturally relevant colleague and trained him to facilitate three sessions at each workers’ center.
We’ve since continued this work with another research project. We trained peer educators to lead trainings at worker centers. We had to have authorized trainers in the room, but they co-lead with the peer educators in a small group workshop format. We have lots of workers employed in these types of jobs, where many immigrant workers die on the job for a variety of different reasons.
We started in Chicago, and when we heard about other Midwest workers centers we created a train-the-trainer program. In our third year, we expanded to the Southwest. We’ve also performed assessments to see how we were doing. We want to know, “What did they learn? What is the social context of the training? How are the workers’ centers and the peer relationships? How did they develop and how can they extend practices in the job to protect them?” That work has been very satisfying.
What’s a career challenge that you’ve faced?
The funding aspect is always a challenge. How do you sustain an effort? We can create a good idea or a great intervention, but especially if you work with community partners how do we keep it going?
When it comes to public health, what matters to you and why?
The glaring inequities in the U.S.! So often we are told that we are the richest and smartest country in the world. We are the top! We’re the model for the rest of the world! That’s not necessarily true. Those of us in occupational health go crazy over the debate about jobs … because it’s not just jobs! What kind of job are we talking about? What’s the quality of the job? What’s the health of the people in their job? All of that links together. Yes, some people are healthy but other people are not. How did we get that way, and what do we need to address in society to fix it?
What is a persistent public health problem that concerns you?
Injury, illness and death on the job. Overall, if you look at the statistics of death on the job, the trend is decreasing. But that trend is not true for all subgroups. For example, Latino immigrants have a much higher “death on the job rate” than white males. Why is that? It’s the kind of work that they are doing.
It’s almost like we are coming back around to what Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House worked on. We need to improve workplace conditions for specific groups of people who are on the margins, or those who are trying to integrate into society and don’t get enough support. Liberty Mutual estimates that we lose $50 billion a year due to injury, illness and death on the job. It’s important to look at where work happens, who knows about it, and who can create the structure and support. A lot of effort went into creating OSHA but that’s for traditional work places. What about other work places? What about day laborers, construction, family businesses? We should place greater effort into addressing and enforcing non-traditional work.
What’s your ideal solution to this problem?
We should support the education of community health workers and peer educators. What kind of curriculum do they want? There are some groups doing incredible grass roots work with communities to determine what those communities want and need. They collaborate to develop training and curricula that meets people where they are. How can we support workers to learn and share with each other, and put more energy into their organizations? How can public health teach them how to work in collaborative ways? How can we teach them to teach each other about being healthy and safe, and how can that expand and make their work more secure? We have very vulnerable workers who are day laborers, or people that have just come in the country trying to find work, they are trying to survive. We need to explore these issues in public health, and we should do it through workers’ centers, community health workers and peer communities. All these people need to be encouraged and supported.
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