We study the impact of our surroundings, both natural and built, on health.
The field of environmental and occupational health covers everything from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the injuries and mental health challenges we may face at work. We strive to improve health by promoting practices and policies that reduce harmful exposures and protect vulnerable populations. From improving worker health and safety, to promoting healthy housing, to creating new tools to monitor air and water quality, we work to make our homes, our workplaces, and our communities healthier places for all.
A graduate degree in environmental & occupational health prepares you to think critically about complex challenges and to design solutions that improve public health. When you leave one of our programs, you’ll be ready to address emerging environmental and workplace issues in a way that builds on science while prioritizing real people. Our graduates work in environmental health and safety, emergency management, environmental epidemiology, and workplace safety and health in private, nonprofit, and government organizations.
A red orange sun glows behind the clouds of smoke rising over the smoldering field. The smell is slightly sweet, but heavy. A cheerful school bus waits beside acres of burnt sugarcane. Lee Newman, MD, MA sits behind a table of lab samples near the bus. He and his research team are working to determine the causes and factors of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) among Guatemalan sugarcane workers – one of many complex problems that attract him.
Newman wears many hats. As a distinguished university professor, interim department chair for the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH), director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH), and retired software entrepreneur, he is a self-titled “complexity junkie” who has always been attracted to “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are issues that are not just complicated in the scientific sense but are overlaid with political and social complications. There are always multiple forces at work that make these issues seemingly unsolvable, except in parts.
It was the interest in wicked problems that drew Newman into and out of his first professional career as a journalist in the early 1970s. The work of Woodward and Bernstein who pioneered investigative reporting during the Watergate scandal inspired Newman and his generation to become journalists. And while Newman credits journalism with giving him many of the skills he needed to be successful in life, he quickly became disenchanted with the profession.
“I was working as a reporter for a daily paper in Central New Jersey and couldn’t do the type of investigative reporting I was compelled by. I say this with the utmost respect for journalists, but I didn't want to be reporting things, I wanted to do them,” Newman said.
This realization brought Newman to the doors of graduate school to study social psychology. Whether he knew it or not, it was his fascination with complex issues and the wonderment for what made people in social systems tick, that had led him there. Ironically enough, Newman dropped out of grad school for fear of becoming a professor who was overly-focused on research. “While I found the subject fascinating, I was trying to figure out how I could use knowledge to benefit people more directly. And that led me to medical school,” Newman said.
Newman is currently focused on the effect of climate change on human health and the well-being of workers. This finally brings us back to his lab table in the sugarcane field. Since 2016, Newman and researchers from the Center, the EOH Department at the ColoradoSPH, and colleagues at Colorado State University have been partnering with Latin America’s largest agribusiness to improve worker health and help understand and intervene to stem the epidemic of kidney failure. This disease is most prevalent among individuals living in subtropical regions where high temperatures are continuing to rise due to the climate crisis.
His work with workers from Rocky Flats to Guatemala has raised the question of what it means to promote worker health as well as safety. Newman is part of the Total Worker Health (TWH) movement – the core idea that work impacts the rest of one’s life, and the rest of one’s life impacts one’s work.
“To promote well-being, we need to address workers as whole people; their job is only part of who they are. We can't understand and improve their conditions in one part of their life without thinking about the others, and that's a big shift for our profession,” Newman said.
Newman and other TWH professionals are exploring this issue through a process called convergence.
“Changing work conditions that are evolving quickly and in ways that we can't predict, that's a wicked problem,” Newman said. “Convergence brings people who have very different experiences and perspectives together to solve problems. That's what TWH is. There is an enormous spectrum of talents we’re bringing together to change how an entire field thinks about health and safety.”
Ever the irrational optimist (another title Newman has crowned himself with), he faces these complex issues with a strong sense of hope and purpose. “I like to be a person who convenes different people to work on these problems, again with intentionality and purpose. And that purpose should be to make the world a better place.”
Written by Laura Veith, communications and media program manager at the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the ColoradoSPH.