Safeguarding Washington State Baristas

Washington state has long been known for its boutique coffee shops. But very little is known about the health risks of processing coffee for the baristas who work in them.

Recently, coffee processing has been shown to produce a potentially harmful chemical called diacetyl. Diacetyl is the chemical flavoring added to microwave popcorn that, in the early 2000s was associated with high rates of a rare disease known as “popcorn lung” among microwave popcorn producers. Popcorn lung damages the smallest airways of the lungs, interfering with the body’ ability to get oxygen.

Dr. Chris Simpson, a principal investigator with the University of Washington Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment (EDGE) explains how the link between diacetyl and coffee was discovered. “Following the clusters of cases with popcorn manufacturers, NIOSH [the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] realized that diacetyl was used in a bunch of other industries, including in the plants that made flavored coffees. To their surprise, they found that, in these plants, lung disease was not restricted to workers that made flavored coffee.” It turns out that the processing of all coffee produces diacetyl.

So far studies of coffee and diacetyl have been restricted to large plants and not small producers, but that is about to change.

With a $121,134 grant from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Safety and Health Investment Program Dr. Simpson is launching a one-year study of diacetyl levels in Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters, a boutique coffee shop in Olympia, Washington. Specifically, Dr. Simpson will lead a team that measures levels of diacetyl released during coffee grinding and brewing and tests ventilation options that could reduce exposure for baristas. 

The study comes out of a 2018 pilot study funded by EDGE where levels of diacetyl were measured in small coffee shops in Canada. In all cases, diacetyl levels in the barista areas exceeded the recommended exposure levels created by NIOSH. “That was a surprise,” according to Dr. Simpson. The pilot study also adapted the NIOSH sampling method to make it more sensitive.

Soon Hannah Echt, a graduate student supported by the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health’s (DEOHS) NIOSH-funded Education Research Center, will visit the Olympic Crest Coffee Roasters to suck air samples into solvent tubes that will collect the diacetyl gas to later be separated and quantified by Shar Samy’s DEOHS analytical lab. In the fall, after ventilation devices have been installed in the areas with the highest diacetyl levels, she will return to repeat her sampling.

“Our hope is that we will increase awareness of this problem, define its extent and disseminate an effective control solution,” says Dr. Simpson. “It’s a pleasure to get out in the field to work with small businesses who take pride in what they do and want to do the right thing for their employees.”

Funding and support for this project has been provided by the State of Washington, Department of Labor & Industries, Safety & Health Investment Projects.

Leading Focus Groups to Learn About Worker Stress

            Workplace stress can impair a worker’s ability to adequately perform their job functions and put them at risk of injury. If persistent, workplace stress can also lead to longer-term health problems and reduced productivity. Recently Dr. Noah Seixas, Dr. June Spector, and Dr. Anjum Hajat, Hannah Curtis, Jessica Porter, and Orly Stampher, investigators from the UW Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Genomics, Diseases,
and Environment (EDGE) partnered with Heather Winfrey of the Seattle Area Pipe Trades Apprenticeship, Vanessa Carmen of SMART Local 66, and Cindy Gaudio of the Carpenters Employers Apprenticeship Training Trust to research stress in construction workers, particularly women. Their goal was to better understand the impact of work and non-work stressors on worker’s health.
            In an initial phase of the study participants filled out a survey about a wide variety of work and non-work stressors. Perceived stress was one of the main outcomes studied, using a validated instrument called the “Perceived Stress Scale.” They then had blood samples taken to measure four biomarkers related to the immune system, the inflammatory system, and the hormone response system. Participants were also asked to share strategies they used for managing stressful situations at work.
            In a second stage of the study, the EDGE Community Engagement Core helped Research Coordinator, Hannah Curtis, and graduate student, Orly Stampfer, facilitate small focus groups with study participants to discuss preliminary findings, hear how participants interpreted these results, and understand what additional information they wanted to see.
            Two focus groups were held and participants in both expressed gratitude for having a venue to discuss issues of discrimination at work. Results from the study are now being prepared into materials to give back to the participants that will include appropriate interpretation of the results along with proactive steps that can be taken to reduce workplace stress.