Columbus Police's Lone Industrial Hygienist Works Behind Scenes To Protect Officers

Oct 28, 2019

Columbus Division of Police officers rarely use gas masks, but they have them in case highly volatile situations like riots break out. So Iris Velasco schedules a yearly gas mask fitting to ensure officers are ready to go.

"You ready?" she asks Officer Mike Paulins as he finishes strapping on the mask. "OK. Let’s head on in."

A warehouse inside the police headquarters has a table Velasco set up with sign-up sheets, boldly colored flyers with reminders of the fitting times and some sanitizer. She leads Paulins to a smaller room within the closet containing some fans and machines officers run through during the testing.

Velasco sets up Paulins’ machine, which has a series of tests to see how officers move, breathe and speak with the masks. Paulins’ face reddens as the mask suctions to his face. He says it feels strange.

“Like an octopus,” Paulins describes in a deoxygenated voice.

The fittings take place two days a week for five straight weeks. Velasco arranges the fittings so officers from every shift would be able to make it in at some point. She takes note of Paulins’ discomfort.

“We’re eventually switching to a newer (mask) that has a double seal,” Velasco says. “I wore one for an hour during testing, I forgot I was wearing on.”

It’s a unique job, but a typically atypical day for Velasco. She is the sole industrial hygienist for the Columbus Division of Police.

The department's 1,900 officers respond to all sorts of situations around the city – everything from traffic crashes to calls on homicide. As the department’s industrial hygienist, Velasco attempts to make officers’ work as smooth as possible.

Officer Mike Paulins runs through gas mask simulations.
Credit Adora Namigadde

A Unique Line Of Work

“I'm always trying to think of like, who needs what,” Velasco describes her work. “Whatever we can do to give people what they need to do their jobs.”

She divides those needs into five categories: injuries, site safety, emergency planning, health and wellness and personal protective equipment.

“We’re standing in the middle of this warehouse where all the (personal protective equipment) and riot gear goes in and out. I order everything, I maintain everything, I do all the inventory,” Velasco says.

Amid all the gear, sits Velasco’s desk. She has a lamp, computer and tools for different projects scattered about the desk. Velasco tries to stay ahead of the curve in responding to officers’ needs.

“When I worked in nonprofit, I did HIV and sexual health stuff,” Velasco says. “And I was always a fan of bring programs to where people already are. Because you get better participation because they’re already there.”

Iris Velasco sorting through personal protective equipment in a storage room at the Columbus Police Training Academy.
Credit Adora Namigadde

Not Here For Teeth

Velasco took the job seven years ago, when a friend who worked in HR for Columbus Police told her about the new industrial hygienist role. She was hesitant at first, but now she loves the position.

“I make a joke sometimes to the new recruits that I’m not here to do your teeth, because they’ve only heard of a dental hygienist.”

It’s a role that utilizes engineering and public health, which Velasco never thought she’d be able to combine into one position. And since she’s the only industrial hygienist, what she decides is implemented.

“It’s nice because I have a lot of autonomy,” Velasco says. “So I can make decisions and do what I think is best, and I usually don’t have a lot of pushback.”

She’s helping gather Naloxone kits, an opioid overdose reversal tool, for the department’s new therapy dog unit. She maintains the department’s fitness centers, runs tests and helped install defibrillators around the division.

“I tell people, recruits especially, ‘Call me, text me anytime.’ So I’ll get a call in the middle of the night every month or so,” Velasco explains. “But I’d rather have them (call), if they got stuck with a needle, or got exposed to MRSA. I’d rather have them know what to do and not be worried about their health.”

Officer health is a big reason for Velasco undertaking her current project, which will also likely be her the most viable. She’s testing out the next uniform for Columbus officers.