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occupational health branch

Occupational Health Watch: September 2022

Celebrating One of Our Own:
Barbara Materna, California Workplace Safety Icon Retires

After 40 years of tireless, invaluable, and influential work in occupational health and safety, Barbara Materna, PhD, CIH is retiring from her role as Chief of the Occupational Health Branch (OHB) in the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Her final workday is September 30, 2022. With feelings of sadness, but mostly in the spirit of celebration, OHB dedicates this month's Occupational Health Watch to Barbara, an unparalleled professional, mentor, and boss.

Text: Happy RetirementOver the course of her career, Barbara has become a nationally recognized leader in occupational health and safety. As a result, OHB has grown as an innovator in occupational health research and programmatic development. Barbara's achievements are abundant; she has authored or shepherded a vast array of research studies, epidemiological reports, journal articles, and conference presentations, always making the work accessible and meaningful to a wide spectrum of intended audiences, whether lay, academic, scientific, or governmental.

Barbara has contributed to many innovations that now benefit workers and the public's health in California and across the country. Just some of the efforts and programs she has led include:

  • Implementing 1991 legislation that established California's Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Others were responsible for passing the legislation, in particular Drs. Linda Rudolph and Neil Maizlish. 
  • Championing continued federal funding for comprehensive state occupational health surveillance systems that address numerous injuries and illnesses; this has become a national model.
  • Supporting efforts to revise the decades-old Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Cal/OSHA Lead Standards to significantly reduce permissible lead exposure in the workplace.
  • Advising Cal/OSHA on permissible exposure limits for chemicals and emergency rulemaking for new and emerging health threats, including COVID-19.
  • Overseeing Valley Fever outbreak investigations to identify at-risk workers and establish practical prevention methods; this resulted in the enactment of 2019 legislation mandating Valley Fever safety training for the California construction industry.
  • Partnering with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Cal/OSHA to address the severe lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans ("popcorn lung"), caused by diacetyl in flavoring industry workers; as a result, California became one of the first states to recognize, characterize, and regulate this hazard.
  • Leading OHB's response to various infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics, including SARS, H1N1, avian influenza, SARS-CoV-2, and monkeypox. 

Barbara's leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic merits special mention. She served as an essential expert in helping California leaders, agencies, departments, and local health jurisdictions to develop and implement their COVID-19 responses. Her guidance enabled the Governor's Office of Emergency Services to evaluate the effectiveness of personal protective equipment, Cal/OSHA to develop industry-specific guidance, CDPH leadership to provide expert input on masking and ventilation to educate the public, and multiple entities to implement novel surveillance systems for workplace outbreaks. Her COVID-19 work was recognized by CDPH with an individual award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Health.

While leaders are understandably acknowledged for the programmatic successes they achieve over the years, Barbara is distinguished by, perhaps, an even more consequential accomplishment: she has earned the love and gratitude of the countless people who have worked with and for her. This is because Barbara's commitment to protect workers extends to those under her watch in OHB, as well. Her calm demeanor and respectful treatment of all colleagues are hallmarks of her managerial style.  Moreover, she recognizes each person's individual gifts and helps them to achieve to their fullest capacities. These strong qualities have created a well-functioning branch, with staff who feel supported individually and as a unit. For this reason, OHB defines Barbara with one word above all others: irreplaceable.

Barbara truly deserves a wonderful next chapter in her retirement. CDPH, and especially OHB staff, will miss Barbara greatly. We are thrilled that she now gets to travel, relax, read, hike, garden, enjoy nature, and play music. With heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation, enjoy!! 

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