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Dennis Viscusi - NIOSH Chemist and renovator

December 2005


When the time came to renovate one of the aging buildings at NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL), a facility that supports improving respiratory protection for millions of US workers, Ron Shaffer, chief of the Technology Research Branch, tapped Dennis Viscusi to serve as the point of contact for the facilities department. It turned out to be a smart move. When renovating a lab, it’s always best to get design and layout input from the researchers who will be working in the space.

A chemist and the Technology Research Branch’s chemical-hygiene officer, Viscusi spent 18 years as an analytical chemist with a NIOSH contractor in the same building before coming on-board as a permanent, full-time employee four years ago. As a result, he knew the needs and shortcomings of the lab located on the second floor of Building 13 in NIOSH’s Pittsburgh facility better than any of his fellow workers.

NPPTL has three main thrusts: (1) the Respirator Certification Branch, which tests and evaluates respirators for NIOSH approval; (2) the Policy and Standards Development Branch, which develops personal protective equipment (PPE) standards and communicates recommendations for improved protection of workers; and (3) the Technology Research Branch, which conducts a targeted program of research to develop innovative technologies (sensors, protective clothing, respirators, and human interfaces) for PPE to reduce morbidity, injuries, and mortality among American workers.

Chemist Dennis Viscusi injecting a Freon-113 standard gas sample into an Agilent 6890N/5973 GC/MS (gas chromatograph mass spectrophotometer) system at NPPTL’s newly renovated B13 Analytical GC/MS Laboratory.
Chemist Dennis Viscusi injecting a Freon-113 standard gas sample into an Agilent 6890N/5973 GC/MS (gas chromatograph mass spectrophotometer) system at NPPTL’s newly renovated B13 Analytical GC/MS Laboratory.
Photo by Judi Coyne

“Dennis has really good attention to detail, but probably his biggest asset was his ability to form partnerships and to be helpful to a lot of people here on the site,” says Shaffer. “He was able to give them a researcher’s perspective. His dedication to the project included investigating cost savings that resulted in us saving $800,000, which allowed us to add a lot more equipment and systems to the lab than what we previously were budgeted for. We really went from a 1950s-type building to something that is state-of-the art in terms of electrical equipment and the ability to do chemistry experiments.”

The new lab opened in May, and Shaffer nominated Viscusi for CDC Employee of Month for his role in the renovation. “It’s an honor well deserved,” says Ron Tabit, the NIOSH facilities engineer responsible for the project. “Dennis really made my job a lot easier. I was able to be more productive since we got a lot more done by having someone who knew the operation and the lab’s purpose as well as Dennis knew it.”

Viscusi helped with every detail, from laying out the lab benches and placing test equipment to ensuring that the right power requirements were available for the lab equipment to minimize electrical interference.

“We used to have our fit-test chamber and our analytical instrumentation in the same room, which created problems analyzing data, since the analyzers could be contaminated by the residual Freon that might leak from the chamber. Now we have these areas in two separate rooms,” says Ziqing Zhuang, PhD, NIOSH research engineer.

While Viscusi worked on the lab renovations during the day, he would catch up on his day job as a chemist in the evenings. “He spent a lot of time working on this building, but he still took care of other business for my projects. No matter what the assignment, he got it done,” says Zhuang.

Despite the long hours, deadlines, and budgetary challenges, Viscusi was still “a pleasure to work with” and could often break up daily tensions encountered during the renovation with humor, asserts Tabit. “I remember one meeting with the contractor during the middle of construction where everyone was stumped over a particular challenge. I called Dennis and put him on speaker phone thinking he could provide input. After hearing the description of the problem, Dennis said, ‘Yes, I know the answer to that, and it’s going to cost you a Snickers bar.’ We got a case of Snickers for him, and after that it was a standing joke on the job site that ‘We can ask Dennis a question, but who’s got a candy bar?’”

Despite light-hearted moments, Viscusi considers the work of NPPTL critical, especially following 9/11, which was his first day as a permanent, full-time staff member. “The work we do at NPPTL is of the utmost importance for a national, personal protective equipment laboratory. So much is taken for granted about respirators-assuming they are going to work and be the right one for the job. If we don’t ensure effective use of protective technologies, then people may suffer needless exposure to potential respiratory hazards.”

Today, he supports three projects in the lab: Laboratory Tests for Total Inward Leakage, Development of Computer-Aided Face Fit Evaluation Methods, and Frequency of Fit Testing. “Fit testing is something OSHA requires an employee to do at least once a year if they are required by their employer to wear a NIOSH-certified respirator in the performance of their job,” he points out. “We gather information and review the percentage of fit-test failures. This, in turn, will allow us to investigate and determine the appropriate frequency for fit testing.”

Of the renovation work, which lasted approximately nine months, Viscusi expresses a lot of pride in the final result. The cost savings he found by removing the casework from the contractor’s statement of work allowed NPPTL to reinvest in the lab. By purchasing the casework directly from the manufacturer and having it professionally installed by them, Viscusi was able to secure all of the new benches and cabinets and with the additional money freed up buy a compressed central air system that brought house medical-grade compressed air to anywhere in the building, a new central vacuum system, a $250,000 air handling system, and an ADA-compliant restroom, as well as a new fire alarm system. He explains, “We also got another hood and some extra lab space. We were able to accommodate a state-of-the-art 3D Head Scanning and Anthropometrics Lab, as well as the Bioaerosol Lab, the Aerosol Lab, and the GC/MS Analytical Lab.”

“I think everyone is happy with the building and the labs,” maintains Viscusi, who also noted that a major push at NPPTL is embracing the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence. “Once you buy into that type of business philosophy, you can start getting the benefits of valuing your employees as partners and taking advantage of their unperceived skills beyond their regular technical job duties. As a chemist, I wouldn't necessarily be expected to do this type of job, providing day-to-day support in a lab renovation. I am very grateful to Ron Shaffer who took a shot at giving me this opportunity to exercise my abilities beyond those required of my job.”

When he is not working at NIOSH, Viscusi enjoys hunting and fishing with friends and spending quality family time with his wife and best friend, Mary Ann, daughter Melissa, and his three grandchildren-Mary, 14; Jonathan, 13; and Andrew, 6.

Story by Anne Sargent.

Dennis ViscusiDennis Viscusi