Compliance assistance for Spanish-speaking auto body shop workers leads to better health and better business in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Lawrence is considered an environmental justice community because it suffers disproportionately from toxic releases from incinerators, manufacturing facilities, and waste sites. As a result, Lawrence endures one of the highest asthma rates in Massachusetts.
Emissions from the high concentration of auto-body paint shops in the city contribute to the asthma epidemic. There are 45 shops in Lawrence—that’s eight per square mile. The shops are Latino-owned, and, before JSI's intervention, the vast majority did not operate in compliance with local, state, or federal environmental regulations. Further contributing to asthma disparities is the fact many of these shops are located in residential neighborhoods, and vent stacks from the shops emit fumes and exhaust at the window-level of neighboring apartments.
As project leader Gretchen Latowsky explains, “We realized that developing effective interventions programs is dependent on understanding the community and engaging them in a mutual learning process that takes into consideration the social, political, and cultural context in which they operate.”
To that end, the project hired bilingual Latino residents to act as educators in the shops. Through the new line of communication, the project team has been able to learn how owners are running their shops, the economic issues they face, challenges posed to them by language and illiteracy issues, and unfair treatment from government agencies, such as long delays in obtaining permits, and misunderstanding the expectations of city agencies.
Before and After JSI's Compliance Project in Lawrence
The team was able to prove to shop owners that meeting compliance regulations would not only improve the health of employees and neighbors, but improve shops' bottom line. Shop owners learned that running a clean and compliant shop using best management practices would lead to higher incomes and that switching to improved spray gun and spray booth technology would limit exposure to harmful emissions and increase efficiency.
“One of the keys to our success,” says Gretchen, “ was that everyone in the collaboration was united in establishing the dual goal of reducing air toxics while preserving—and improving-- the economic viability of the shops.”
The program worked with city agencies, as well, to develop a coordinated strategy to continue to bring shops into compliance through culturally and linguistically appropriate educational programs, by utilizing existing ordinances to levy fines for non-compliance, and by developing incentives such as a certificate from the mayor proclaiming a shop to be fully compliant. This effort has brought both efficiencies and pride to the compliance work.
Through the effective leadership of the project team, many of the non-compliant shops have become compliant, and many more have made significant steps toward reaching compliance. The Compliance Assistance for Spanish-Speaking Auto-Body Shop Workers project has not only established practices that will improve health outcomes, but has served the community by integrating immigrant workers into the mainstream of American business.