Barbara Materna is chief of the Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health. She has worked in the field of occupational health for over 20 years, since obtaining a Masters degree in Environmental Health Science at Hunter College, City University of New York. She also holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Science from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Materna's work experience has been primarily as an industrial hygienist within local and state public health agencies. She has worked on research and education projects involving toxic exposures to wildland firefighters, prevention of pesticide illness in agriculture, ergonomics and back injury prevention, perchloroethylene exposure of dry cleaners, as well as occupational lead poisoning.


Occupational Health Watch: Preventing Valley Fever

Ten members of a 12-person construction crew excavating a trench developed Valley Fever (coccidioidomycosis or “cocci”), an illness with pneumonia and flu-like symptoms. Seven had abnormal chest x-rays, four had rashes, and one had an infection that spread beyond his lungs. The 10 ill crew members missed at least 1660 hours of work; two of the workers were on disability for months.

Some of these workers are counted among the over 1000 Californians that seek hospital care for Valley Fever every year. About eight of every 100 of those hospitalized die from this infection. Yet workplace health and safety plans often do not even mention Valley Fever, despite the fact that it can be disabling or fatal.

Occupational Health Watch: Asthma on the Job

Barbara Materna, PhD

Roughly 40% of California’s adults with asthma, or an estimated 974,000 people, have asthma that has been caused or aggravated by their work.  Nearly two-thirds of these workers did not have asthma until it was caused by conditions or substances at a job.

This is a key finding from a new asthma tracking report that includes a chapter devoted to work-related asthma.  The California Department of Public Health has just released, “Asthma in California: A Surveillance Report.”  OHB’s Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program (WRAPP) analyzed data from a statewide survey conducted between 2006 and 2009 to estimate the extent of work-related asthma among Californians for the report.

Preventing Falls Through Skylights — A New ‘Digital Story’ for Workers Memorial Day

Barbara Materna

“Everybody seems to think that we’re invincible.  At least I used to think that.” So begins a digital story about Joe, a roofing supervisor in California who died tragically after he fell through a warehouse roof skylight while on the job.

The California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (CA/FACE) program produced a five-minute ‘digital story’ with two of Joe’s co-workers highlighting the events that led up to his death and what could have been done to prevent it.

Occupational Health Watch: Cleaning Products and Work-Related Asthma

Barbara Materna

Custodians, cleaners, and maintenance workers are the employees most at risk for work-related asthma from exposure to cleaning agents.

The Work-Related Asthma Prevention Program (WRAPP), of the California Department of Public Health, Occupational Health Branch, has found that work-related asthma among custodians and cleaners is double the rate in the overall workforce. WRAPP has also found that teachers, office workers, and other building occupants can get asthma from cleaning chemicals used in their workplaces.

A new set of multilingual worker fact sheets explain work-related asthma, how it can be prevented from cleaning product exposures, and what to do if a worker experiences symptoms.

Occupational Health Watch: Preventing Worker Deaths from Solvents Containing Methylene Chloride

Barbara Materna

A 62-year-old paint maker died while cleaning a paint tank.  A 24-year-old maintenance worker died while stripping a church baptismal font.  Both were using paint strippers containing methylene chloride, a widely used solvent that can cause death and serious illness among workers and consumers in enclosed spaces. 

Methylene chloride is a cancer-causing chemical also used in the production of polymer foams and as a degreaser. Methylene chloride most often affects the central nervous system (the brain) causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness, drowsiness, and other effects like those of drinking alcohol. At very high levels it can cause unconsciousness and death.

Tracking Occupational Health in California

A day laborer falls off an unsafe scaffold and dies.  A custodian gets work-related asthma from cleaning products.  A painter is tested and found to have lead poisoning.  Every year, thousands of California workers are injured on the job or become ill as a result of health hazards at work.

Twelve workers tragically lose their lives on the job each day in the United States, with 409 workplace deaths in California in 2009. Latino workers are particularly at risk. In Los Angeles County, where nearly one quarter of the state’s fatalities occur, Latino workers have a 50% higher fatality rate than non-Latino workers.

Safe Cosmetics Program Protects Workers & Consumers from Cancer-Causing Hair Smoothing Products

between California’s Attorney General and manufacturers of Brazilian Blowout hair smoothing products that contain a cancer-causing chemical will help protect salon workers and consumers, according to the California Department of Public Health’s Occupational Health Branch.

The settlement with the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout products requires the company to warn consumers and hair stylists that two of its hair smoothing products emit formaldehyde gas, which is known to cause cancer in humans.  The company must also cease deceptive advertising; pay $600,000 in fees, penalties and costs; and report the presence of formaldehyde in its products to California Safe Cosmetics Program (CSCP).  The warning requirements are the maximum penalty that could be achieved under state law.

Preventing Falls in the Solar Industry — A New ‘Digital Story’ for Workers Memorial Day

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Hans Petersen said goodbye to his roommate and left for work to install solar panels.  Hans didn’t return from work that day.  He died on the job when he stepped backwards off an apartment building roof and fell 45 feet. The California Department of Public Health’s California Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) program created a four-minute “digital story” to explain the tragic events that led to Petersen’s fatal fall and what could have been done to prevent it.

Occupational Health Watch: Cleaning Products Can Cause Asthma

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A 37-year-old teacher developed new asthma at her workplace. She worked in an area where custodians used cleaning products at full strength instead of mixing them with water, as the label required. She now has asthma symptoms made worse by many different chemicals.

A 43-year-old high school custodian started having breathing problems when he used chemicals to clean the bathrooms and strip floor wax at work. It took a year for him to be diagnosed with asthma. He finally had to leave his job because of his asthma.

These are just two of the many California workers whose asthma was caused or made worse by cleaning products. Cleaning products are used in all workplaces and can cause or trigger work-related asthma.