LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 3, 2014) — The Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center (CARERC), housed in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, has received a five-year, $5 million grant to advance occupational health and safety in Central Appalachia and Kentucky. The funding, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will support the 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 nation. Each of the Central Appalachia states included within 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 safety and wellbeing 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," says Wayne Sanderson, director of the 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, the CARERC was formed in 2012 as a combination of the academic resources of the colleges nursing, public health, and engineering at UK as well the college of justice and safety at Eastern Kentucky University. One of only 18 ERCs in the country, it provides interdisciplinary graduate education for students and health professionals in five programs: agricultural safety and health, occupational epidemiology, mining engineering safety and health, occupational health nursing, 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," says 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.
U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers was present to announce the funding at UK on Sept. 2.
"Students in southern and eastern Kentucky will now have access to greater educational opportunities in the field of occupational safety and health research, which in turn strengthens our workforce here at home," said Congressman Rogers. "I applaud this partnership between UK and EKU that invests in our most rural areas, where were are working diligently to diversify the economy and plan for the future with better health and job opportunities."
Bryan Basford, a CARERC EKU student studying the funding of transportation safety, security, and ergonomic improvement, says that the support he's 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 loved. He took out student loans to fund his first year of graduate work before learning about and successfully applying to the 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."
CARERC support has also been decisive for John Flunker, who is pursuing his master's degree in environmental health and preventive medicine at the UK College of Public Health. He was initially interested in the college because of its Top 25 ranking, but it was the opportunity to be part of the CARERC that finalized his choice.
Flunker is currently finishing his practicum project, which, in collaboration with the UK College of Agriculture, examines the respiratory health of Latinos working in the horse industry. He says that without the CARERC, he mostly likely wouldn't have had opportunities for such interdisciplinary education and collaborative work.
"The ERC creates ways for us to continually interact with other students and professionals who are involved in the same field so we can discuss ideas and current research and share experiences," he says.
Scotty Dunlap, director of the EKU component of the 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 says. "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, the CARERC serves as a resource for industry, labor, government agencies, and other stakeholders. For example, the 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.
The 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," says Sanderson. "Everything we do is very interdisciplinary, which is how the real world works— people working together to solve problems."
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