Experiences in Sri Lanka

Experiences in Sri Lanka

Wickramatillake and Jacobs

After receiving a Fulbright Specialist Grant, Robert Jacobs, PhD, spent a portion of the spring semester in Sri Lanka where he worked at the University of Moratuwa alongside alum, Aseni Wickramatillake, MD, MPH (‘10). Jacobs shares with us about this experiences.

  • What was your primarily role while at the University of Moratuwa?

I worked in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) program at the University of Moratuwa. The OSH program is housed in the Department of Building Economics in the Faculty (School) of Architecture. The program offers training at the undergraduate and post-graduate (Master’s degree) level in OHS. My primary role was as a lecturer but I also participated some field studies looking at health and safety issues in the garment manufacturing industry (one of the largest industries in Sri Lanka).


  • Can you tell me about your work with our alum, Dr. Aseni Wickramatillake?

I worked with Aseni on health and safety issues. Aseni is a physician who received her MPH degree here at UofL. In addition to having a faculty appointment in OSH at the University of Moratuwa, Aseni works with the OSH community in Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) to implement OSH programs for local industries.

I worked with her at the University through lectures and class discussions but we also set up a field study at a local garment manufacturer that does piece work (putting together shorts, shirts, etc. from pre-fabricated pieces) for major international manufacturers. The manufacturer was interested in transitioning from a sitting work stations to what was called ‘dancing stations’ designed to enhance worker productivity by having workers move to points in the production line were the process was slowest or where bottle necks were occurring. 

Occupational Safety and Health is a major issue in Sri Lanka, not  because they don't have the regulations on the books, but because they do not have a robust system of implementing them.

The emphasis was to improve production but OSH was not being considered. The transition would require that workers stand for the entire shift thus potentially creating work health/safety issues. I worked with Aseni and students at the University of Moratuwa to perform a walk-through of the facility, including an evaluation of the processes they use to train new hires as well as an ergonomic evaluation of both the sitting and standing work processes. We had a closing conference with the management of the factory to discuss our preliminary observations then returned to the University where the students, Aseni and I put together a workplace assessment and sent it to the management at the garment manufacture for their consideration.  Several assessment recommendations were made and suggestions about possible follow-up health and safety studies that could be done by the University of Moratuwa faculty and students in the future. 

I also participated with Aseni in a workshop titled ‘How Best to Manage Hazards at Your Workplace’ for office managers in small businesses. This workshop was held at a local hotel in Colombo and I provided two lectures that focused on health and safety in the United States and to provide specific guidelines on how to set up a safety program in a small business. Aseni also provided presentations at the workshop. There were about 75 attendees at the day long workshop. 


  •  What are the top three public health challenges in Sri Lanka?

- Clearly Occupational Safety and Health is a major issue. Not so much because they do not have the regulations on the books, but because they do not have a robust system of implementing them. 

-  A second big challenge is waste management. Just as I was getting ready to leave for Sri Lanka there was an accident where 28 people were killed because of a garbage dump collapse (see news accounts). There are very few waste landfills in country so disposal is a major issue.

- A third big challenge is traffic. Not only are there high numbers of traffic fatalities, the cost due to traffic congestion (delays) places an enormous burden on the economy. 

- Other challenges include the resurgence of Dengue fever, an aging population, and increasing incidence of cardiovascular disease.


  •  How has this opportunity enriched your career?

Clearly having the opportunity to travel and experience another culture expands ones perspective, not only culturally, but, in this case, by providing an additional perspective on the practice of OSH. Identifying the differences and similarities helps me to put into context why some activities/interventions that work in the U.S. would not work in Sri Lanka (or other country) and is instructive in understanding why some health and safety programs work well and why others do not.


  • What was most memorable about your experience? 

First, the classroom interactions with the undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Moratowa provide a number of opportunities to discuss the differences and similarities between OSH as practiced in Sri Lanka and the U.S., and thus insights into each culture. These were enjoyable and lively discussions and were particularly constructive to my understanding of some of the key OSH issues in Sri Lanka and the challenges of implementing effective OSH programs. 

Second, the additional unplanned activity at the University of Peradeniya focused on safety in university laboratories provide an opportunity to assist the University in developing and implementing a university-wide safety program. If this comes about it will be a major step in assuring that laboratory safety issues are addressed, and possibly serve as a model for other universities in Sri Lanka.

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