This Mailman Professor Put Women's Workplace Health on the Map

March 29, 2022

By the early 1970s, women made up nearly half the workforce, and in growing numbers were joining occupations previously denied them. Even as the workforce landscape shifted and women faced new health and safety risks, there was a dearth of information about these risks and avenues to advocate for improvements. As just one example, personal protective equipment was designed to fit men’s bodies; the loose fit of masks in particular put women at risk.

Enter Jeanne M. Stellman, emerita professor of health policy and management at the Columbia Mailman School and a leading figure in women’s occupational health during the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. A new scholarly article by historians Amanda Lauren Walter and Elizabeth Faue in the Journal of Women’s History chronicles Stellman’s trailblazing work uncovering the physical and psychological risks facing women workers and challenging the notion of women’s special vulnerability to reproductive health hazards. In this way, she and her colleagues “changed the knowledge and practice of occupational health and safety,” the authors write.

In the early 1970s, as Stellman completed work for a PhD in physical chemistry, she became interested in occupational health. She taught at City College and Rutgers Labor Education Center, where she created the first union-sponsored course on health and safety. She became a consultant to the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and in 1973 was appointed Presidential Assistant. That same year, she and Susan Daum, an internist at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, published Work Is Dangerous to Your Health, a manual for workers that emphasized the role played by unions in achieving workplace health and safety. The book sold more than 100,000 copies and was later used as a text for Columbia Mailman’s core course on environmental health.

Workplace discrimination, stress, fetal protection laws

Stellman’s second book, Women’s Work, Women’s Health: Myths and Realities, published in 1977, was among the first to draw attention to workplace discrimination and stress women experienced both inside and outside the home. The book also challenged the idea that women’s workplace health was limited to reproductive health, not their rights as workers. Stellman provided several proposals for change: equal opportunity in training, assistance in childcare, fair economic value for homemaking and traditional women’s jobs, and flexible hours.

Fetal protection laws were dreamt up by progressive reformers at the turn of the 20th Century, to safeguard potential mothers by limiting the hours women could work and barring them from certain occupations. The result marginalized women in the workforce. In one egregious example, American Cyanamid required women workers to be sterilized or be fired. Staking out a sometimes-controversial position, Stellman pushed back against these laws, arguing for better evidence on women’s occupational risks and protections for all workers regardless of gender. “How else can one explain a health standard that ostensibly seeks to keep a fetus healthy but allows children and adults to be exposed to known harmful levels of lead?” she wrote.

A year after publishing Women’s Work, Women’s Health, Stellman launched the Women's Occupational Health Resource Center (WOHRC) to provide information and technical assistance to industry and unions. Originally based at the American Health Foundation, WOHRC and Stellman relocated to the Columbia Mailman School in 1980. WOHRC was busy, reaching 15,000 people, employers, workers, students, and the public over one 18-month period at the start of the 1980s.

Office Work, Personal Protective Equipment, and Beyond

The only center of its kind in the United States, WOHRC was at the forefront of timely issues like women’s office work (see the hit 1980 film 9 to 5). Their National Institute of Mental Health-funded report explored the impact of the office environment by measuring pulse rate, blood pressure, and visual impairment. In 1984, she and then-MPH student Mary Sue Henifin published Office Work Can be Dangerous to Your Health, one of the first to highlight the hazards of workplace computers. Another priority: personal protective equipment. The WOHRC Personal Protective Equipment Bureau disseminated information on new products, proper fit, use and care, and safety standards. They surveyed manufacturers to create a list of companies that catered to the needs of working women. The bureau relayed information on protective equipment to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Stellman embarked on new research on veterans, producing influential research on the impact of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress syndrome. But even after WOHRC closed in 1990, her commitment to occupational health continued. She served as editor of Women and Health from 1986 to 2004. Between 2005 and 2007, Stellman spent time at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as a visiting professor of psychiatry and directed the effort to create the dataset on World Trade Center recovery workers still being used today. After she became an emerita professor at Columbia Mailman, she spent five years as a tenured professor of environmental and occupational health at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center School. As associate dean for research, she helped create its School of Public Health before returning to Mailman as a Special Lecturer. She edited the fourth edition of the International Labor Organization’s classic Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety.

“Stellman’s productivity as a researcher, extensive public lecturing, and support for occupational health efforts, is only suggestive of the significant impact she has had on women's health and occupational medicine,” Walter and Faue write. “Restoring [her] rightful place in this history not only recognizes her remarkable career but provides a stellar model of occupational health activism and advocacy in today's unregulated workplace.”

Professor Stellman remarks: “This ‘rediscovery’ is a bit overwhelming, especially since there is so much left to do. Right now my collaborator, Steven Stellman (who recently retired from Epidemiology at Mailman) and I are documenting the lifetime costs paid in health and plain-old misery in a cohort of Vietnam Veteran Legionnaires we assembled in 1984. We need to keep training young people to keep up with the never-ending public health challenges.”