CSU occupational safety and health program receives $9 million training grant

Jessica Nunez works with saline solution on a laboratory bench top.
Trainee Jessica Nunez practices administering a nasal rinse. Nunez is a research assistant involved in projects to protect the respiratory health of dairy workers. (Photo: Whitney Pennington/CVMBS)

The Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center secured a $9 million five-year training and research grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The grant will support the education of more than 100 new professionals dedicated to improving worker health, safety and well-being.

The center, founded in 2007, supports the education of occupational safety and health graduate students and physicians at CSU and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The grant from CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will support masters and doctoral-level training programs in fields that are critical for protecting the American workforce.

Colorado State will continue to host programs for industrial hygiene, occupational ergonomics and safety and health physics in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences and occupational health psychology in the Department of Psychology. The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus will host the occupational medicine residency and fellowship program for physicians specializing in occupational and environmental medicine and students pursuing a graduate certificate in Total Worker Health.

“Each program offers interdisciplinary educational and research opportunities that teach trainees to work on practical problems facing employers and workers,” said Stephen Reynolds, center co-director and professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. Reynolds directs and founded the center with Dr. Lee Newman, distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz.

The center serves a five-state region, including Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana. In addition to providing educational opportunities, the grant supports high-impact research relevant to the region, which focus on addressing work-related health issues in industries such as mining, energy, health care, agriculture, manufacturing and small business. It also provides a platform for delivering state-of-the-art online and in-person courses for practicing occupational safety and health professionals to maintain their skills.

Prioritizing student education

While grant programs and continuing education provide important opportunities to advance the occupational safety field overall, the center’s highest priority is supporting and training students. Approximately 85% of the center’s $9 million grant will go towards student tuition, stipends, and travel support to professional conferences and learning experiences, such as trips to the Idaho and Los Alamos National Laboratories.

“This funding is critical for addressing the regional and national shortage of trained occupational health and safety professionals,” said Gwenith Fisher, director of the occupational health psychology program and associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

Center trainees Grant Erlandson (center) and Ty Benner (right) traveled to Washington, D.C. with Stephen Reynolds (left) in February 2020. They educated legislators on the value of investing in worker safety, health, and well-being. (Photo: Whitney Pennington/CVMBS)

“Our graduates assume leadership positions in business, academia, and government, where they help improve employee health, safety, wellness and productivity,” said Fisher. “They will help employers and employees throughout Colorado and beyond create healthier and safer places to work. This work has always been important, but the COVID pandemic has increased general awareness for occupational safety and health in recent months.”

“My training has allowed me to gain skills beyond just the technical skills of industrial hygiene I learned in my undergraduate coursework,” said Jessica Nunez, a masters candidate and center trainee. “Through the interactions and collaborations with my peers and professional mentors, I have learned the skills to empower workplaces to initiate sustainable health and safety programs.” Nunez plans to seek work as an industrial hygienist after graduation but is considering additional education in the future.

Enthusiastic collaboration and innovation

The center is one of 18 such programs in the country. Though CSU and the University of Colorado have both provided rigorous education in the occupational safety and health field since the 1970s, Reynolds and Newman recognized the timing was right in the early 2000s to formalize the center and seek federal support.

“When we organized a meeting to gauge enthusiasm among faculty at CSU and the University of Colorado, more than 40 faculty showed up,” said Reynolds. That enthusiasm has continued to grow.

“Our faculty and students collaborate to provide practical, evidence-based solutions for businesses ranging from ranches and dairy farms to hospitals and construction companies,” said Reynolds. “I am very proud of our faculty and our trainees. We are always striving for excellence and willing and able to support one another. Because of this, we are recognized by our peers as highly innovative leaders.”

group photo of people in green vests
Trainees in the Mountain and Plains Education and Research Center industrial hygiene program visit Signature Stone, a concrete manufacturing facility in Greeley. (CVMBS photo)