Even in normal times, protecting workers requires not just effort and diligence, but also trustworthy information delivered at the right time. COVID-19 ups the ante exponentially.

So says Nick Levintow ’78, a lifelong civil servant and labor-law attorney who has studied occupational safety and health for 40 years.

As the world began opening and returning to work last fall, Levintow wondered: How has the federal COVID-19 occupational safety and health (OSH) response been? Has it been enough? 

While mulling an idea for a professional paper to answer these questions, Levintow heard about Colby’s Pay it Northward initiative. He saw a perfect opportunity to step up and give back.

“Using the pandemic as a hook,” he said, “I thought it would be a unique opportunity to engage young people in OSH issues in a way that has meaning for them personally.” So Levintow, now an independent consultant, created a project and four paid internships through DavisConnects. His plan was to teach critical research skills, build awareness of the issue, and coauthor a paper summarizing regulatory agencies’ responses to the pandemic.

Workplace safety is certainly an issue that Cal Wetmore ’20 understands. As an EMT and a firefighter at Colby, protecting himself always came first before going into an emergency situation. Working now as one of Levintow’s research assistants, he’s discovering the policy side of worker safety.

“It’s a different kind of research than I was doing as a biology major,” said Wetmore, who’s learned a new way of collecting data and conducting research. For this project, he scoured websites for COVID-19 policies and guidelines from international agencies such as the World Health Organization and EU-OSHA as well as from California, Michigan, and Oregon.  

The other research assistants—George Eisenhauer ’22, John McConnell ’20, and Ben Retik ’20—were assigned to other sectors such as the federal government, state governments, and NGOs and trade organizations.
 

Illustration about working remotely
 

Initially, the project focused on comparing the United States federal response with benchmarks established by international labor standards and key global stakeholders, Levintow said. As the project progressed, the focus shifted. 

“What became clear was there was a stronger comparison to make, between federal OSHA on the one hand,” he said, “and on the other, the responses of leading state OSH programs that adopted a more forward-leaning approach.” 

The team has met regularly on Zoom, where Levintow teaches them about OSH principles and offers feedback on how to best use the sources they’ve compiled to write their section of the paper. As they’ve written collaboratively, Levintow encouraged them to take ownership of the paper. He sees it as a way for them to explore how advocacy on civic issues feels.

Cal Wetmore is confident the research skills he’s learned will help him in med school. He also appreciates that Colby alumni have his back.

It’s definitely been an eye-opening experience for Wetmore. His basic understanding of OSH guidelines has evolved as he’s learned how other sectors implement guidelines, both before and during COVID-19. 

“Mistakes were made all over the world with how this was handled,” he said. “However, if we can learn from those, the next time we’re going to do better.”

Levintow also sees room for improvement on how the profession—his profession—has handled the pandemic. “The results have been disappointing,” he said, “partially because everyone’s worried about liability, and they’re not taking care of the workers.

“The U.S. pandemic response has been frustrated by a confusing patchwork of requirements. The differences from state to state, and the federal government’s position that existing regulations were sufficient, led to confusion and cynicism.”

Results from the project will be shared broadly. Along with the paper, due in early March, the team plans to create a simplified presentation for the general public. 

For Levintow, this partnership has been a rewarding way to share his expertise with these young graduates. If one of them sees this as a career option, he said, “that would be a huge victory.”

If not, there are plenty of other benefits. Wetmore is confident the research skills he’s learned will help him in med school, where he hopes to be in the near future. He also appreciates that Colby alumni have his back. 

“It feels really great,” he said, “to have graduated from such a close-knit community.”