Q&A with Kevin Riley, new director at the Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program

By Citlalli Chávez-Nava | June 21, 2021 

With over a decade of experience undertaking worker and community-engaged research and worker training initiatives, Kevin Riley was recently appointed as the new director of the Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH), a unit of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) and part of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Founded in 1978, LOSH is a nationally recognized center promoting safe workplaces through teaching and education, research and policy advocacy. 

“Kevin’s published research, his innovative intervention strategies, and his expertise and experience elevated him to the top of the candidate pool and his selection,” said IRLE Director Abel Valenzuela Jr. “I look forward to working with Kevin and his leadership and vision in moving forward important work to grapple with and offer research-driven solutions to the unprecedented workplace safety and health challenges related to COVID-19 and our state’s economic reopening.”

Tell us about yourself and how you came to work focused on labor and occupational safety and health? 

I initially got into the field of public health in the late 1990s doing work around HIV/AIDS and homelessness issues. I came to UCLA for the Master of Public Health program and then went on to pursue a PhD in sociology. My interests led me into the area of U.S. drug policy, and I stumbled on an interesting case from the ’50s and ’60s where government officials were trying to crack down on an illicit market in amphetamine pills among long-haul truck drivers. These drivers were clearly relying on stimulants to cope with some intense work pressures, and I became fascinated with the tensions around working conditions, government policies, and worker safety. This became the topic of my dissertation. 

In the process of completing my research, I met folks at LOSH, including the former director Linda Delp, who introduced me to the ways these issues were connected to LOSH’s work and I got totally hooked. This was a corner of public health that naturally brought together a lot of my interests around health, class, politics, and the environment, and it even helped me to start seeing the experiences of my own working family members in a new light. I’ve been at LOSH since 2008, most of that time as Director of Research and Evaluation and coordinator of several of our worker training grants. 

What does LOSH do? What types of workers does LOSH serve? 

LOSH is a community outreach and engagement program that aims to promote safe and healthy workplaces. We achieve this goal through training, research, technical assistance and leadership development for workers and their representatives. As a UCLA-based program, I think of LOSH as an important bridge between the resources of the university and the needs of the broader Southern California community. 

Many of LOSH’s initiatives focus on industries with high rates of injury or illness — that is, where work is dirty, difficult, or dangerous. But we also dedicate many efforts to support workers who are vulnerable to injury or illness by virtue of other factors such as age, race/ethnicity, immigration status, English language proficiency, or employment arrangements. All of these factors contribute to occupational health disparities. 

You are stepping into this role with years of experience. What LOSH accomplishments are you most proud of thus far? 

In my former role as LOSH Director of Research and Evaluation, I led a series of research projects that looked at the injury experiences of low-wage workers in California and beyond.

We’ve looked at how these issues play out specifically for residential day laborers and domestic workers. These are workers in very informal employment situations providing services in and around private homes — services such as house cleaning, gardening and landscaping, construction, or caring for elderly or sick family members.

Our research examined what happens to these workers when they are injured. Do they tell their employers? Are they able to access workers compensation and other resources? What are the impacts on their families and their ability to continue working? 

I’m pleased that findings from this work have informed several policy initiatives and contributed to some really amazing worker-led campaigns to expand health and safety protections for this workforce. 

What are the ways COVID-19 has impacted LOSH’s work? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created both enormous challenges and opportunities for us at LOSH. Starting in March 2020, we were flooded with questions about COVID risks at work, particularly for the many essential workers who did not have the luxury of performing their jobs remotely. Our team had to quickly find ways to continue providing training and other activities via virtual platforms while also staying up to date on emerging COVID science, which seemed to change daily. 

But the pandemic has also given us the chance to get involved in exciting initiatives at the local and state level.This includes LOSH’s role in Los Angeles County’s Public Health Councils initiative, which supports frontline workers in monitoring employer compliance with the County’s health officer orders. It has also meant training with workers across a wide range of industries — from nurses to garment workers, to agricultural workers, to school personnel — to be sure they understand their rights when it comes to COVID safety at work. And of course, we’re now pivoting again as the state’s reopening brings new changes for workers and employers across the state. 

I imagine another challenge for workplace safety and health is climate change. Is LOSH looking at climate change?

Yes, we’re conducting research and training on occupational hazards related to climate change, including exposure to extreme heat and wildfires. These have both emerged as serious and growing threats to workers in our part of the country in recent years. 

California is actually one of the few states in the country with an OSHA standard for outdoor heat illness prevention, and the only state with a standard to protect workers from wildfire smoke. So LOSH has done a lot to train workers in both English and Spanish on what those standards mean for them and the kind of protections that they can expect from their employers. And a lot of our efforts focus on workers who are often the most vulnerable to these hazards — workers in agriculture, forestry, construction, and other sectors. Workers are on the frontlines when it comes to climate-related events, and we need to make sure they are adequately protected.

What are your big-picture goals as you begin to direct LOSH’s work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on safety and health and working conditions of frontline workers in a way that we have not seen in a really long time. So coming into this position at this moment, I feel like it opens up really interesting opportunities not only to elevate the work we’ve been doing for a while, but to push our efforts forward in new and innovative ways. 

Because health and safety issues don’t just impact workers in the midst of a pandemic — they are the reality that workers face every single day. And the hazards that workers encounter on the job contribute to the broader health inequities that we see all around us. Too often those connections are overlooked. But I see opportunities for LOSH to become a prominent voice in helping to articulate those connections and to support innovative approaches to protect workers from harm. 

Finally, in thinking about our student audience, what advice would you give students that are thinking about careers in workplace health and safety?

I’ll give a plug for both the labor studies major and the public health minor. Both of these programs offer great opportunities for students to learn about work and health, and the value of public service and advocacy. I would also encourage students to explore internship opportunities available to them in this area. At LOSH, we host the Occupational Health Internship Program (OHIP) each summer, which places students with local unions and worker organizations to carry out field-based projects. 

Truly the best way for students to learn about this area is to connect with an organization, roll up their sleeves and start getting involved. There’s lots of important work to be done. 

Media contact Citlalli Chavez-Nava, citlallichavez@ucla.edu