Julie Sorensen Receives Award for Work at NYCAMH & Northeast Center

Bassett Healthcare Network's Julie Sorensen, PhD, was recently recognized by the Agricultural Safety & Health Council of America (ASHCA) for her two decades of research and increasing worker safety. ASHCA presented the 2022 Safety & Health Researcher award at their annual national conference. Sorensen is director of Bassett's New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) and the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety (NEC).

"It's always great to be recognized," says Sorensen. "But this award is especially meaningful because it's coming from industry — the very people we are hoping to support.

"I also have to say that if I have been successful to any degree, it is because I work with talented, dedicated people who give 110% every day."

Julie Sorensen & NYCAMH/NEC team stand with fishermen in Seal Cove, ME
Julie Sorensen, Rebecca Weil, and Judy Graham of NYCAMH/NEC stand with fishermen Tim Butler, Bryan Butler, and Jerimiah Felix in Seal Cove, ME

ASHCA chose Sorensen for the overall impact of work throughout her career rather than for a specific achievement. However, a couple of projects stand out.

Tractors Without Tragedy

Sorensen began New York's rollover protective structures (ROPS) program with Dr. John May in 2007. In New York, tractor rollovers have historically been the most common cause of farm injuries and fatalities. Tractor roll bars dramatically reduce the risk, but they needed to be retrospectively installed on older tractors that weren't originally sold with these safety devices. The ROPS program assisted farmers with the installation of these vital safety devices.

"The ROPS project spoke to the power of talking to your target audience and understanding the problem from their perspective," reflects Sorensen. "Very often in public health, we just assume that knowledge is the problem — that people don't know the right thing to do. However, more often than not, people do understand what will keep them healthy or safe — they just experience barriers getting there."

A listening tour revealed that farmers knew about the danger of tractor rollovers, but finding the right roll bar and hardware to fit a particular tractor's year, make, and model required precious time and money. Given these barriers, most farmers put their faith in their own strong driving skills, hoping for a favorable outcome despite the risk.

The NY ROPS program addressed all these barriers by creating a hotline that offered to assist with pricing, locating ROPS kits, and offsetting costs with a rebate. A social marketing campaign also emphasized the risk to less-experienced tractor operators, such as young farmhands or to other family members.

The results were dramatic: the demand required them to triple their hotline staffing while local tractor parts dealers initially ran out of stock. Researchers estimate that between 2007 and 2017, the program saved at least ten lives and four million dollars.

Lobstermen with Lifejackets

Years later, Sorensen and the NEC set out to decrease drowning fatalities among New England lobster fishermen. This time her team found that preconceptions that lifejackets were too cumbersome for hard work were the primary barrier. But listening, again, revealed a path forward.

She and her team offered lobstermen a small financial incentive for trying a commercially available lifejacket and then providing feedback. In time they found a number of fisherman-approved models. More importantly, they learned that offering a variety of options was important as body size, specific work tasks, and personal preferences all influenced which model a fisherman preferred. This explained why most lobstermen found lifejackets too restrictive: the chances of someone choosing their "just right" jacket the first time — or even that their local retailer would carry a jacket that met their needs — were slim.

In light of these supply chain issues, the NEC deployed vans with a full selection of lifejackets to ports for lobstermen to try different fisherman-approved lifejacket options. In the end, the program distributed 1,200 life jackets.

"When we started this project, many people thought it would fail because fishermen were never going to wear lifejackets," remembers Sorensen. She explains that they originally planned to deploy their lifejacket van intervention in Massachusetts, but not Maine. As a control group, Maine would offer a comparison for measuring the impact of the program. However, just before deployment, the project's industry Advisory Board stated that it was essential to offer the program in both states. Fishermen were so excited about the program, it seemed, that Maine fishermen would feel left out.

"That's when I realized our team had succeeded," says Sorensen. "If the control group was going to be upset about not getting lifejackets, then it was pretty clear we'd developed the right solution. That's been a wonderful thing to witness."


To learn more about NYCAMH & the NEC's recent work, read the below stories: