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Chris Cain – Promoting Training and Career Opportunities for Construction Workers

Chris Cain

Cain is an industrial hygienist who advocates for the safety and health of workers in the construction industry.
(Photo courtesy of Chris Cain)

July 9, 2018

NIEHS grantee Chris Trahan Cain is passionate about improving the health and safety of workers in the construction, trade, and energy industries.

Shortly after earning her bachelor’s degree in industrial hygiene, Cain began her career as a compliance officer for the New York State Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau. In this position, she enforced protective regulations for public employees at the state and local level according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

In 1998, Cain joined CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to reducing and eliminating conditions that pose risks to the health and safety of workers in the U.S. construction industry. This includes pipe fitters, brick layers, ironworkers, roofers, heavy equipment operating engineers, and laborers, among others.

Cain became executive director at CPWR in 2017. One of her primary roles is to oversee, manage, and develop training programs that target various levels of skilled construction workers and tradesmen from underrepresented, minority populations. These training programs are funded in part by a cooperative agreement with the NIEHS Environmental Career Worker Training Program (ECWTP), a special program under the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP).

ECWTP trainees practice their carpentry skills building small houses.

ECWTP trainees practice their carpentry skills building small houses.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Surtees, CPWR)

Building a sustainable workforce using apprenticeships

With NIEHS ECWTP funding, CPWR delivers long-term, comprehensive trainings that prepare workers for employment and readiness to enter a building trades apprenticeship program. This apprenticeship model ensures a more sustainable workforce in the construction industry and offers a unique advantage for workers who may not have previously found a steady career path.

“It offers new, inexperienced workers opportunities for mentorship, education at no cost, and income from on-the-job training,” Cain says. “It also helps those who are unemployed or under-employed gain better access to long-term careers and provides them with the necessary skills to ensure their success and safety in these careers.”

Between 2015 and 2017, CPWR used the apprenticeship model to train workers in four cities through partnerships with 4 local or community-based organizations across the nation, placing 117 workers into new construction careers.

A key to the long-term success of the model and its associated training is partnership with local employers and nationwide construction organizations. By integrating feedback from local employers, CPWR ensures that they provide the most relevant and effective training to participants whose goal is to become part of the local workforce upon completion of their apprenticeship.

“In the end, it is not CPWR who is running the show, but the work community itself,” Cain explains. “We come in to support and provide technical assistance, but it is really about the trades and employers bringing people into the workforce.”

Decontamination Line

Flint ECWTP trainees run through a simulation of a decontamination line.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Surtees, CPWR)

Creating jobs to respond to a public health emergency in Flint

After the 2014 Flint water crisis, CPWR implemented a training program for workers in Flint, MI. The discovery of unsafe lead levels in the community’s drinking water, required the replacement of all outdated and unsafe lead pipes, likely impacting thousands of water lines.

CPWR seized this as an opportunity to both build skills in the workforce and provide additional workers for the local initiative to improve Flint’s water system. Compared to the duration of other training programs offered by CPWR, the one in Flint is expedited to meet the urgent need for workers to replace unsafe pipelines.

In 2015, CPWR began a partnership with GST Michigan Works and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council to deliver hazardous waste, lead awareness, confined space, and OSHA training to 25 under- and unemployed workers in the Flint area. By the second year of the program, 20 participants had been placed into a formal apprenticeship program in one of the trades participating in the rebuild of Flint’s water system.

Now moving into its fourth year, Cain acknowledges that the program has had a very positive impact on the Flint community. Although there have been some changes to the training curriculum to accommodate growth, CPWR’s mission in Flint remains the same. “We, along with our local and state partners, share a common goal – we want to provide meaningful training opportunities for under- and unemployed locals in Flint, so that they can improve both their livelihood and community,” she explains.

Developing leadership and communication skills for workers

To develop a safe work environment, it is important that all levels of workers – senior management and on-the-ground personnel – communicate with each other. This ensures that workers develop an understanding and appreciation for safety requirements and protocol.

In January 2017, CPWR released a new training curriculum that focuses on developing workers’ soft skills, such as active listening and three-way communication. As part of this curriculum, CPWR released their Foundations for Safety Leadership (FSL) course module, which was created to improve the overall principles of leadership and communication in the construction industry. More specifically, this course aims to bridge communication gaps between management and craft workers in the industry. FSL course participants learn these skills through interactive, hands-on activities, such as role-play scenarios.

“It may not be natural for someone who is an excellent construction worker, to also have the soft-skills needed to make them a great leader and communicator,” Cain says. “That is why this curriculum is so important.” Many small and large employers have incorporated the FSL course into their ongoing safety training efforts. Cain estimates that at least 5,000 workers nationwide took the FSL course in 2017, which was offered through pre-existing OSHA 30-hour courses. Adoption of the curriculum has since gone much farther, having recently been modified for workers on Department of Energy nuclear sites. Construction companies have also adopted the curriculum as part of their internal leadership training programs, all of which aim to improve worksite safety.

“I am very proud of this program and how it has allowed participants to begin leading by example to empower other workers,” Cain says. “I think it provides an opportunity to influence positive changes throughout the construction industry.” Moving forward, Cain and her colleagues at CPWR will continue to refine the FSL course based on the needs of workers in the construction industry, in hopes to better improve the industry’s culture of safety.

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