EKU, UK Partner to Enhance Worker Safety in Central Appalachia

Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky are partnering to advance occupational health and safety in central Appalachia.

The Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center (CARERC), housed in the UK College of Public Health but incorporating an EKU academic program, has received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The funds will support CARERC as a cohesive, fully equipped and recognized resource for occupational safety and health research and training in central Appalachia.

Just as Kentucky and Appalachia experience elevated rates of many preventable health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, rates of occupational injuries and fatalities are also higher than the rest of the nation. Each of the central Appalachia states included in the scope of the CARERC reports high proportions of fatal occupational injuries related to transportation and highway incidents; injuries in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining – industries that are vital to the region and state but also require highly trained health and safety professionals across multiple disciplines to ensure the well-being of employees and the public.

"While Central Appalachia has witnessed economic progress over the past several decades, systematic attention to the safety and health concerns of its work force has been limited," said Dr. Wayne Sanderson, director of CARERC and interim dean of the UK College of Public Health.

In order to address the urgent regional health and safety needs – particularly in the face of anticipated shortages in the occupational health and safety workforce – CAREC was formed in 2012 as a combination of the academic resources of the Colleges of Nursing, Public Health, and Engineering at UK as well the College of Justice and Safety at EKU. One of only 17 ERCs in the country, it provides interdisciplinary graduate education for students and health professionals in five academic programs: agricultural safety and health, occupational epidemiology, mining engineering safety and health, occupational health nursing, all at UK; and occupational safety at EKU.

The CARERC works to train professionals who are well equipped to identify and address workplace safety and health hazards, thereby preventing injuries and their associated costs," said Sanderson.

A full 70 percent of the current funding goes directly to support students in the CARERC program, who receive multiple forms of assistance and career development opportunities to prepare them as expert health and safety professionals. In addition to tuition and a stipend, they also benefit from the opportunity to attend professional conferences where they can engage with and learn from national leaders in their field. Through a field studies course, they network with professionals and gain site experience in diverse industries ranging from coal mining to dairy processing to bourbon distilling. And, most importantly, they learn and train in an interdisciplinary program that exposes them to the complex and interconnected dynamics of occupational health and safety.

Bryan Basford, a CARERC EKU student studying the funding of transportation safety, security and ergonomic improvement, said that the support he has received from the program has been the single greatest thing to happen to him in graduate school.

As a working professional – he currently serves as the transportation director of the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council in Richmond – Basford struggled to balance his desire to continue his education with the need to keep the day job that he loves. He took out student loans to fund his first year of graduate work before learning about and applying to CARERC.

"The ERC has been key to keeping me in the program because it's an opportunity for me to continue my education without taking further student loans," he explained. "There are thousands of students out there in the same position – young professionals who are committed to their field and want more education – but they're not sure how to pay for it without giving up their job."

Dr. Scotty Dunlap, director of the EKU component of CARERC, recognizes that the interdisciplinary training and on-site experiences are a unique combination that gives students a professional advantage.

"Each industry has its own health and safety challenges," he said. "It's important that students get comprehensive training as well as some on-the-ground experience during their program so they can hit the ground running in their careers."

Beyond students, CARERC serves as a resource for industry, labor, government agencies and other stakeholders. For example, CARERC works with the OSHA Training Institute at EKU to provide occupational safety and health education training opportunities for employees and employers in central Appalachia. According to Dunlap, many businesses in the area are too small to afford dedicated occupational safety professionals, and therefore give such responsibilities to operations or human resources managers who often aren't appropriately trained.

CARERC is also partnering with stakeholders in the mining industry to develop new methods to reduce coal dust exposure for miners. In response to an increase in black lung disease, which had been declining, last year's CARERC annual conference convened government, academic, industry, and labor stakeholders to discuss the problem.

"There aren't many courses or programs where you're out in the field working with nurses, epidemiologists, and safety experts," said Sanderson. "Everything we do is very interdisciplinary, which is how the real world works – people working together to solve problems."

Published on September 04, 2014

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