Two industrial hygienists at Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries are captivating audiences with tales of mortuaries, crematoriums and graveyards. Though they’re far from Morticia Addams and Lilly Munster, Eva Glosson and Kat Gregersen entertained a room full of other hygienists by sharing their interest in the death care industry.
Eva Glosson and Kat Gregersen at the 2018 American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo
L&I’s industrial hygiene compliance officers inspect every kind of workplace imaginable, and many of them are interesting, but for Kat and Eva none is more intriguing than those workplaces that cater to the dead. “I was initially intrigued by this topic because we all have contact with the death care industry, and yet most of us know very little about it,” Gregersen said. “It’s natural to have a fear of death and a general ‘ick’ reaction towards dead bodies, but the cultural result is that people don’t know what happens to the bodies of their loved ones after they die. I think we should know.”
“What I find most interesting about the death care industry, is that it’s an industry every one of us will use, but none of us wants to,” Glosson said. “We put more time and research into picking the restaurant for a going away lunch with our colleagues than we do on who takes care of mom after she dies.”
In fact, there are many hazards in the death care industry. Like other L&I hygienists Kat and Eva work hard, using their education and experience, to help death care workers avoid injury and illness on the job. It’s L&I’s primary mission, and it’s a responsibility Eva and Kat take seriously.
After attending the 2017 American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo in Seattle, the two decided to apply to co-present about the death care industry at the 2018 conference. Not only were they accepted to present, but their presentation was voted the most popular by conference attendees.
“Our session at AIHce 2018 ‘G2: Bring Out Your Dead: Changing Exposures in the Death Industry’ was the highest rated session of the entire education program with an average score of 4.87 out of 5.0,” Gregersen said. “While it wasn’t an award, the conference has hundreds of speakers over the week, so being the audience choice is a neat thing. I guess it also means most of us are a bit more morbid than we let on.”
In truth their interest, and likely that of other hygienists, is more methodical than morbid – more scientific than sullen.
“One myth that comes out of our fear of death is that dead bodies are inherently dangerous,” Gregersen said. “While there are some diseases that are transmitted post-mortem (tuberculosis, ebola, etc), for the most part the lowered temperature in a corpse makes the body less hospitable to many infectious agents. Corpses may be scary, disturbing, or smelly, but they do not pose inherent danger.” See, not morbid at all.
Glosson said one reason it’s important to share stories like theirs is that most people don’t even understand what an industrial hygienist does. She explains it as the study of, and protection from, the things at work you can’t see, smell, taste or feel, but that can hurt you.
“Taking this understanding of industrial hygiene and applying it to the death care industry can start some great conversations,” she said. “Do I want to be embalmed and create a chemical, bloodborne pathogen, and ergonomic hazards for my mortician in a big, bulky casket? Do I want to be cremated and have my organics go up an exhaust stack and rake out silica dust? How do I expose a worker to caustic soda during aquamation? Will my green burial in August give my gravedigger heat stroke?”
This is just one of myriad stories about L&I employees making a difference in workers’ lives across Washington State. Their work, when it’s most successful, goes unnoticed, because the goal is to ensure nothing happens. We will all make use of the death care industry at some time. Thanks to Eva and Kat, many people working in that industry will stay safe and healthy and live full lives.