UW News

October 30, 2008

Environmental Health & Safety’s VanDusen bids farewell to UW

“The name Karen Ann Jenkins was recently added to the former masculine ranks of Environmental Health Specialists. Karen is Seattle-King County Health Department’s first woman sanitarian.” The Outlook, August 1965.

Karen VanDusen, director of the UW Department of Environmental Health and Safety, is retiring from a long career in which she has been a trendsetter and a pioneer — and a guardian of the public’s health.

VanDusen graduated magna cum laude and with Phi Beta Kappa honors from the UW in 1965 with what was then called a major in preventive medicine from the School of Medicine, a precursor to the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine. She also holds a master of science degree in public health from the UW.

“I found this major in 1962. It was basically a public health program. People who graduated from the program at that time were called sanitarians,” VanDusen explained.

Reflective of the times, there were no women in the field. And, when VanDusen was hired as the first woman registered sanitarian, she made front-page news in papers across the state.

“At that time, the local government merit program existed, and you had to take a state test and you were put on a roster, depending on where you ranked. Based on the outcome of that test, you would be referred to local health jurisdictions with job openings. I was right on top of the roster, based on test results, and would get referred. But then, I would have people say, ‘Oh, we don’t hire women.'”

“When I was hired by Public Health — Seattle & King County as it’s known now, it was so unusual. I think it was an opportunity to be a trendsetter for women professionals. I have always been thankful of the choice I made with my major, as it opened many doors and gave me a fascinating career and an opportunity to meet and work with so many dedicated public health professionals.”

VanDusen’s career path has taken many turns from her first work with local health, including being a secondary school teacher, a coordinator and teacher of a migrant education project, an advisory sanitarian and environmental health consultant for Washington state, where she worked on the closure of a uranium mill site and instituted a pesticide reporting program, and eventually became the office director for the DOH Office of Community Environmental Health Programs. She has also served faculty appointments at Western Washington State College (now University), Evergreen State College, and served for over a decade as an assistant professor and undergraduate advisor in the, School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the UW.

In 1994, while working as a director with the State Department of Health, VanDusen got a call from a former UW faculty colleague encouraging her to apply for the position of director of Environmental Health and Safety at the UW. My friend called me and said ‘You know, it’s time for you to come home again.’ Which I thought was a real interesting choice of words.”

She was hired for the position in 1995.

As the executive of the department, VanDusen oversees 75 full-time employees and six offices that combined secure the well-being of all who are a part of the UW in Seattle, Tacoma (UWT) and Bothell (UWB). The programs are:

  • The Environmental Programs office, which regulates hazardous waste and environmental issues and is the campus liaison with the Department of Ecology. This office also manages one of the major data bases for the campus, called MyChem, a robust inventory system of all the chemicals in use on the campus by room, by quantity. MyChem serves as a link to Materials Safety Data Sheets that provide detailed information about the components and hazards of all chemicals in use on campus. Database information is also used as an emergency reference for required reporting to the Department of Ecology and the Fire Departments.
  • The Occupational Health & Safety office, which oversees workplace health and safety, in terms of industrial hygiene and is a liaison with the Department of Labor and Industries. This Office also houses the public health programs for the campus, since EH&S implements the functions of a local health jurisdiction for the University, based on an agreement with DOH.
  • The Radiation Safety office, which manages radioactive materials on campus and is the primary liaison with DOH and NRC. The UW has one of the largest broad radioactive materials licenses in the country, which includes coverage of work in two hospitals as well as research.
  • The Building and Fire Safety office, which works with facility issues, biosafety cabinets, fumehoods, and conducts plan reviews of all capital projects, with an emphasis on fire and life safety codes, as well as conducting prevention and assessment surveys on campus to assure compliance with regulatory requirements..
  • The Research and Biological Safety office, which supports the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) and reviews all of the research that involves infectious materials or recombinant DNA. The office also runs the Occupational Health Nursing Program to assess exposure risks and what the appropriate occupational health preventions might be.
  • The Program Support office, which supports the robust training efforts of the dfepartment and serves as the administrative support for EH&S, including personnel and fiscal issues.

As VanDusen reflected on her oversight of these programs over the past 13 years, she said the biggest operational changes occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. Heightened national security required more regulatory procedures and policies, particularly in the areas of biomedical research and also the use of radioactive materials.

“9/11 totally changed the expectations of and community perspective of what research and researchers were doing. In partnership with the UW Police Department, we have had to help researchers adapt to a new culture of security, which is no easy thing in an institution that excels at collaboration,” Van Dusen said.

The research hasn’t changed, but the federal laws surrounding research with certain types of infectious agents and the use of certain quantities of radioactive materials have become much more complex and prescriptive, including requiring researchers to go through FBI background checks now. We have to monitor that, and I have been designated the University’s “Responsible Official” and also the “T&R Official” (Trustworthy and Reliable Official) ” for different federal agencies, which confirms the University’s commitment to assuring the federal mandates are addressed. It also means I’m the designated felon if something doesn’t go right.”

VanDusen said her department’s response to such complex research regulation is one of the things she feels particularly good about. “For example, we established the Office of Research and Biosafety and located them down in Health Sciences, so that they are closer to and can be more responsive to the researchers’ needs.” In addition, she looks back with a sense of accomplishment that, while she has been director, the University’s environmental stewardship effort was launched in her organization, the PEAT team was formed, the smoke-free University policy was developed, the enhanced health and safety committee structure was implemented, EH&S services to UWB and UWT were expanded, EH&S became a critical partner in several University committees, and EH&S became one of the leaders in the University’s Enterprise Risk Management efforts.

As VanDusen looks back on her long career in public health, she said she was fortunate to be a woman at the head of the curve:

“I’ve had really great mentors and great opportunities. What’s been fun and very energizing about my career is that I’ve been part of the “first time something was tried” many times. I was part of the UW’s first honors program — so I was one of the first honors students; I was the first woman in the state and one of only a handful of women in the nation in the environmental health field ; I was part of the first faculty group serving the new School of Public Health and Community Medicine; I was part of the first management team that recreated the state Department of Health; and I was one of the first three community members selected to serve on the King County Board of Health.”

VanDusen attributed her successes as director of Environmental Health and Safety to her colleagues.

 “I’ve had a fantastic management team and a fantastic group of people to work with me in Environmental Health and Safety. Together we have brought this organization to a place where it is known nationally for its excellence, and I feel really good about that. That’s when you want to retire. You want to retire when things are okay in an organization, not when things are dissolving. Right now, I think things are great!


VanDusen retires as director of Environmental Health and Safety November 14. She has recently been re-appointed to a second three-year term on the Washington State Board of Health and notes: “I look forward to still being part of a team of professionals addressing the larger policy issues and public health needs of the state. It is a good way to transition into retirement while still serving the larger good.”