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BYU Professors and Students Work to Create Safe Working Environments in the Brick Kilns of Nepal

Dr. Steven Thygerson, with BYU public health students, is working to create safe working conditions for brick kiln workers in Nepal.

In Nepal, everything is made of bricks. The brick industry is thriving, but its success comes at a dangerous cost to the health of the brick kiln workers, who are surrounded by large amounts of silica and respirable dust.

Dr. Steven Thygerson, who has been working for seven years with a group of international colleagues on a project focused on health in the workplace, Workplace Health Without Borders, works on the brick kilns committee. He joined the committee because he was excited to see what he and the BYU public health students could learn about from the project and what they could do to make brick kilns a safer work environment.

In 2016, he and several undergrad students began gathering and preparing equipment to test the levels of silica and respirable dust in the kilns. In 2018 and 2019, Thygerson, along with Dr. James Johnston, took a group of students to Nepal to do testing. In 2022, the experience will be offered again as a global health internship.

With the testing, Thygerson and the students discovered that the silica and respirable dust exposure for the workers is 11 to 17 times the occupational exposure limits for those particles. Silica exposure can cause an incurable lung disease called Silicosis and can also cause cancers. Respirable dust can cause lung issues, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fatigue, body aches, flu-like symptoms, and a shortened life span. Dr. Thygerson described the severity of the problem and said, “I could show you photos of these brick workers with silica laden dust all over their faces and shirts. They are 100 years behind developed countries in terms of recognition of these hazards.” The danger is also expanded because the brick kiln workers and their families live on site of the brick kilns, which means their exposure doesn’t end at the end of the day.

The next steps for the brick kiln committee members include determining the severity of the impact of the exposure, developing methods to decrease the exposure, and making recommendations to the owners of the brick kilns. Dr. Thygerson explained, “We have to determine the magnitude and burden of the injury before we can start any controls.” Thygerson and the students are working with collaborative research groups both in the U.S. and Nepal including Johns Hopkins University, Global Fairness Initiative, the University of Minnesota, Kathmandu University, Tribhuvan University, and Karnali Academy of Health Sciences. They are working to gather biological samples, do x-rays and pulmonary function testing, and take environmental and occupational air samples. With the grants they have received, they will be able to continue the trips to Nepal and complete the research.

The committee has also worked with engineering schools to develop ways to make bricks that lower the exposure levels. Currently, the brick kilns in Nepal and in Pakistan, Africa, India, and Peru, other countries where Thygerson is working, are all making bricks the “old fashioned way,” which creates higher occupational hazards.

Because the brick kilns are the second highest source of pollution in the Kathmandu Valley, outside groups have tried to create alternative brick development methods with a Swiss design. Although their efforts have reduced pollution, they are expensive to change and to operate. Thygerson explained, “We might need to start smaller grassroots efforts before we start introducing major brick design modifications.”

Through his work in various organizations throughout the world, Thygerson has learned that, “Our Heavenly Father has made amazing people on this earth different for a reason. I think part of our purpose is to get to know those differences, understand those [differences], and know how we can help our fellow beings.” He has also learned about the importance of creating a network and volunteering. He said, “I would recommend looking for volunteer experiences early on and continuing in them. It is good for the soul.”

While the purpose of the brick kiln committee is to improve workplace conditions around the world, especially in Nepal, another important purpose is to improve the lives of the students who are involved in the research. Thygerson said, “If I can open up the world to the students, help them understand the research that’s going on, and get them involved, that’s probably my main purpose.” Those experiences can change the lives of the students as well as the brick kiln workers.