Participants in the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) fall 2020 workshop(https://tools.niehs.nih.gov/wetp/events.cfm?id=2603) on Sept. 23-24 discussed strategies to enhance and unify their efforts. “Regardless of the circumstances we face, the principles of industrial hygiene, exposure, and public health are not going to change,” said WTP Director Joseph “Chip” Hughes. “These are the principles we must hold onto as we consider a vision forward.”
Program staff, grantees, and partners shared short- and long-term goals for WTP that integrate current public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires. These goals will inform the program’s vision to provide model safety and health training and education to workers involved in hazardous materials clean-up and emergency response during the next five years.
Education and activation
Keynote speaker Linda Rae Murray, M.D., from the University of Illinois at Chicago, reminded participants of the program’s origin in the workers’ and civil rights movements. She said these movements sparked change through education and activation — two essential components to guide the WTP’s next chapter. Activation empowers workers to use what they learned as they work.
“Education and activation are critical in preventing contamination and exposure,” she said. “But we have to go beyond the technical details. We have to expand what we teach to empower workers and give them the tools they need to become actively involved in changing their workplace.”
Sustaining the vision
Other speakers voiced strategies to sustain the program’s vision across all training areas. Common themes included building new partnerships, providing mentorship, and embracing new technologies.
Mark Catlin, industrial hygienist and former lead researcher for a WTP-funded effort, said that new collaborations — though not always easy to form — are necessary to expanding the program’s reach.
Jill James, chief safety officer of the Health and Safety Institute, elaborated on the increasing need for mentorship. “I would like to see a broad cadre of cross-generational experts mentoring one another in this space, so the knowledge you have built up over time is not lost but instead it grows,” she said.
New awards, new opportunities
Another key to sustaining the vision is funding organizations that have the capacity to deliver high-quality health and safety training to workers. WTP recently released new awards for the 2020-2025 funding period.
During small group sessions, returning and new grantees explored future collaborations. They also discussed disasters, mental health, equity, and other cross-cutting topics.
One output of the workshop is a list of attainable goals for WTP to consider. Program staff will consolidate these goals and use them to update the strategic plan.
Workshop participants also celebrated champions who have paved the way for success. The relentless efforts of forerunners in occupational health and safety like Eula Bingham created a blueprint and foundation for WTP. To kick off the workshop, Hughes and colleagues hosted a memorial to honor her.
Program graduates are champions, too, as they often become leading voices in their communities. Martanaze Hancock and Sherri Bell, graduates of the Environmental Career Worker Training Program, shared how pivotal the program has been for their lives and career paths.
Tribute to Hughes
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., closed the workshop by paying tribute to Hughes’ service as WTP director for more than 30 years. Hughes, a longtime advocate for workers and vulnerable communities, will retire at the end of this year (see sidebar).
“Chip, we are so proud of the work and leadership that you have brought to this program,” Woychik said. “You have brought a passion to increasing worker safety and health. I have never seen anything like this before. You should be very proud of your service to the federal government.”
(Kenda Freeman is a research and communication specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)