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Your Environment. Your Health.

Pioneering Worker Health and Safety Training in the Midwest

Carol Rice, Ph.D.

September 26, 2019

Carol Rice, Ph.D.

Rice has dedicated her career to improving worker health and safety. Thanks to her efforts, workers across the Midwest are safer on the job and communities are more aware of how to handle emergencies.
(Photo courtesy of Carol Rice)

NIEHS grantee Carol Rice, Ph.D., industrial hygienist and professor emerita of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, is one of several experts who helped grow a tradition of worker health and safety training programs in the Midwest.

Rice’s long-standing career in industrial hygiene began in 1975 when she landed her first job in exposure assessment. She currently leads the Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training (MWC), where she has served as the principal investigator and director since it was first established in 1987. MWC is funded by the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP) to develop and implement training programs for workers potentially exposed to hazardous materials on the job.

The MWC started out training 300 people in its first year; however, Rice’s continual leadership has enabled the consortium’s training to expand, now reaching approximately 17,000 people a year. MWC reaches target audiences of hazardous waste site workers and emergency responders through training centers across nine Midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Training Locals and Building Community Resilience

MWC training centers have a reputation for delivering excellent health and safety training programs. Rice said one of the goals of the consortium is to ensure that each training center forges its own identity and reputation within its state or marketing area. Local centers build respect and gain stature as worker health and safety experts. As recognized experts, trainers work with Rice to create new and vet existing training programs.

Training programs include hands-on field exercises with state-of-the-art equipment and emergency simulations that provide high quality education for trainees. For new training programs, the development phase involves brainstorming the exercises, drafting content, and writing exams or checklists to measure trainee performance and achievement. Once a newly created training program is ready, all members of the consortium, whether they plan to offer the training locally or not, vote to approve the proposed criteria for program completion before it becomes final.

Rice works with colleagues to ensure development of training programs that are relevant to their locale. For example, The Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT), a consortium member in New Town, North Dakota where high volumes of fuel are shipped by rail, was instrumental in creating a course to train workers to respond to hazardous transportation incidents. The course, Industrial Emergency Response: Large-Volume Fuels Release, trains first responders on appropriate actions to take in the event of a rail accident. Community members learn what to do through another program, Community Member Preparedness for Potential Exposure along Transportation Routes, developed with TAT. Developing the courses brought the TAT community, first responders, and rail authorities to the table to design training that would benefit all sides. Building positive relationships between community members, first responders, and rail authorities smooths implementation of a coordinated disaster response. Rice said it often takes a long time to develop these kinds of cooperative relationships, but MWC’s work has shown it can be achieved and produce mutual benefits for all partners.

participants during mold awareness demonstration by University of Minnesota

Participants observe a demonstration prior to hands-on training for mold awareness delivered by the University of Minnesota following floods along the Mississippi River in spring 2019.
(Photo courtesy of Carol Rice)

Increasing Emergency Preparedness

MWC has created a variety of training courses focused on emergency response, such as their Disaster Preparedness, Confined Space Rescue, and Anhydrous Ammonia courses. Rice said good emergency response training is critical and helps emergency response teams save lives not only in the workplace, but in the community as well.

One anecdote Rice shared involved Emergency Response Solutions International (ERSI), a MWC member based in Michigan, who offers training for emergency response teams throughout North America. An ERSI trainee at the Sharonville Transmission Plant in Ohio used his training to quickly extinguish a fire before it caused significant damage to the plant and jeopardized employee safety.

The MWC also works to increase emergency preparedness within communities and respond to their training needs. An example Rice gave is their recent work with consortium member Fisk University in Tennessee, where Nashville residents expressed interest in obtaining information about hazards associated with natural gas pipeline compressor stations being built in the area. Following the 2019 explosion of a station in Michigan, the MWC revisited a fact sheet, which details hazards of these stations and what controls are available, at a recent MWC trainer meeting. The 2019 explosion will be incorporated as an example in the fact sheet, and an updated version will be released to Nashville residents before the end of the year.

Reflecting on these successes and many others, Rice credits the trainers who deliver the programs to trainees. “Without dedicated trainers, the consortium would not have lasted this long,” she said. “Since the beginning, our program evaluations have reflected the high quality of training delivered. We know this is due to the continual dedication of trainers for delivering programs day in and day out.”

Staying Connected

At one point, MWC used a monthly trainer newsletter to keep members connected with relevant news about workplace health and safety in the Midwest.

Today, Twitter has taken over that function. The social media platform allows for real-time communication of consortium news with the added benefit of acting as an archive. For example, Rice said the entire history of the Flint water crisis is held within the MWC Twitter feed.

Between the archival and sharing capabilities of Twitter, the app has fully replaced the old newsletter. Now, MWC’s training centers can obtain the news in an instant just by checking online.

New Faces and Passing On the Legacy

The MWC will be adding a new member to their lineup up of dedicated trainers next year – the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center (CIWC). Notably, this bilingual organization will be the first training center in the MWC offering Spanish language training to workers. CIWC’s addition will strengthen the consortium’s ability to provide more workers with quality health and safety trainings moving forward.

Rice has high hopes for the MWC’s future as she prepares to retire from her leadership position in August 2020. Peter Raynor, Ph.D., will take over the reins. Raynor directs the University of Minnesota’s Industrial Hygiene Program and the Midwest Emerging Technologies Public Health and Safety Training Program. Like Rice, Raynor has built a long career honing his extensive expertise in occupational health, industrial hygiene, and exposure science.

Ahead of her retirement, Rice says she is passing on her legacy to keep the consortium strong. “The MWC has a rich history, and I am sharing all my lessons learned with future leadership,” Rice said. “Making decisions without knowing the consortium’s history can be a real hazard because you can reinvent the same mistakes.” Her extensive knowledge, valuable experience, and enduring work ethic will continue to benefit MWC and enhance its mission of keeping workers and communities safe from modern industrial hazards for years to come.

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