Career spurred by family working in China sweatshops: 'I just couldn't fathom that people were subjected to such horrendous conditions'
Imelda Wong – an occupational hygienist and epidemiologist – has had a lifelong interest in health and safety, largely due to her family history:
“My grandmothers and cousin-in-law spent a large portion of their lives working in the sweatshops in China and while I was growing up, I heard all about the atrocities and infringements on human rights and safety. I just couldn’t fathom that people were subjected to such horrendous conditions.”
What was worse, she says, is that those practices and human rights infringements were not only in China and other “far away places” but also “within our own backyards in Canada.”
In addition to this, what really spurred her to pursue her graduate studies in this area is when her father passed away suddenly while she was working at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“For most of his life, he worked multiple jobs, long work hours and shift work to help us build a better life as Canadian immigrants. It took a significant toll on our family life and his health. I often wondered if those risk factors contributed to his premature death,” says Wong.
During her time at UBC, she worked as Program Manager for a CIHR/MSFHR graduate research training program, which combined research in health, engineering and policy:
“While there were a number of very interesting projects developed from that program, the issue of occupational health really caught my attention,” she says, “especially from a personal standpoint.”
Wong is currently the Coordinator of the Center for Work and Fatigue Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Through her background and her current role, she has dual insights in workplace safety in both Canada and the U.S.
The Center was launched in May 2020 in the middle of the pandemic: “It was timely given all the stress and uncertainty that the world is facing,” says Wong.
“My role is a very rewarding one, not only do I get to do research, but I am involved in outreach to researchers internal and external to NIOSH, policy makers, other federal agencies, OHS professionals, employers and workers.
It’s been a very exciting time connecting with folks to develop targeted fatigue mitigation strategies, by learning from one another,” she says.
Wong spends her time on numerous fronts, notably helping new researchers and developing research projects; sharing knowledge and resources to improve work efficiency; and providing readily available resources to the public:
“I see my role not only as a researcher, but also a facilitator of new research and outreach initiatives.
“[I] look for new ways to continue to strengthen the NIOSH tripartite approach of government, industry, and labor to address research and policy issues. I think we all have a great deal to learn from one another in terms of industry specifics and foundations of work-related fatigue research. There is surprisingly a lot of lessons we can share across sectors.”
Throughout her tenure at the Institute, she has won a number of awards, including a NIOSH leadership award.
Wong is passionate about health and safety, and says that she treasures the time that people take to tell her about their personal stories:
“Whether it’s about unsafe practices in their workplace and asking me what they can do about it, or telling me about success stories that spawn from changes they have made in their workplace, or even working together as management and workers to find solutions to make their workplace safer.”
Knowing how to build trust and relationships is key to safety leadership, and safety professionals are often drawn to the profession because of their interest in helping others.
“I think the human aspect [of OHS] is my favorite part,” says Wong. “If we can make improvements to the way we work, then maybe it can prolong or save someone’s life with other positive downstream effects, like allowing them to be healthy enough to play with their kids, or experience life’s major milestones.”