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On any given day, some 40,000 students, faculty and staff converge on the University of Utah. Some go to class and others work in one of the school’s 700 laboratories. Some visit state-of-the-art buildings while other use venerable structures that have been around for decades.
Michele Johnson’s job is to keep all these people and facilities safe.
The Detroit native is the university’s director of environmental health and safety. That might sound like a benign title, but she and her staff of 24 face myriad daily challenges.
They include preparing the campus for a major earthquake, and making certain that laboratories posing potential for serious injury are safe, and that precautions are taken during research.
Johnson and her staff consult with those designing new buildings and labs to make certain they meet fire codes, have proper ventilation and measure up to all building standards.
They make certain that hazardous waste is properly picked up and disposed of. The crew also reviews experiments, research protocols and occupational safety procedures, and makes sure there are procedures in place to contain releases of dangerous chemicals or toxins.
The importance of such safety measures is evident in lab accidents that in the past few years killed a researcher at UCLA and seriously injured several at Texas Tech.
"The biggest challenge these days, from a health and safety perspective, is addressing the view of laboratory safety in higher education," said Johnson. "We are keeping up in a positive way with the challenges that go along with our growing hospitals and clinics. … We need to make sure we have the resources needed to help our investigators in a collegial manner so our faculty and students can be in compliance."
Sitting behind her desk in an old building at Fort Douglas, the friendly Johnson pulls out a host of stuffed microbes representing potential hazards such as the ebola virus, yeast, strep throat or athletes’ foot fungus. She then stuffs them into a glass lab jar and puts the lid on it tightly, a demonstration designed to show the importance of containment.
Johnson, a resident of South Salt Lake, earned her bachelor’s degree in botany at the University of Michigan. She then received a master’s in public health with a specialty in environmental and occupational health from the University of Hawaii.
She lived in Hawaii for 13 years but decided to move to Utah 16 years ago.
"It was the hardest decision I have ever made in my life," she said. "But Marty Shaub, our executive director, saw in me an ability, passion and potential to grow this program forward."
Asked if some researchers, students or professors view the work of Johnson and her staff as intrusive, the health and safety expert said she views the job as providing a service.
"We pride ourselves in giving advice and counsel for all of our faculty, staff and students," she said. "We are a liaison with regulators, for good or for bad. If we are not in compliance, we are going to work with an investigator."
Johnson leaves the impression, though, that she has little tolerance for error, especially when lives could be at stake. She seems like a person who would be fair, tough and honest.
"I am so not a politician," she said.
The irony is that if Johnson and her staff do their jobs well, they will never be noticed. And it is a testimony to their skill that most of us who have spent years at the University of Utah in different capacities probably don’t know her department even exists.
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