Laura Senier, Ph.D. – Promoting Social and Public Health Equity Through Community Collaboration

May 7, 2024

Laura Senier

“Somewhere between 22nd and 23rd grade, I decided I should just find a job that would let me stay in school permanently,” joked Senier, who has a master’s degree in public health and master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology. (Photo courtesy of Laura Senier)

Laura Senier, Ph.D., grew up in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the 1970s as a public health mystery unfolded. A group of local children — including her young cousin — had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Subsequent research found associations between the cancer cluster and exposure to chemicals from industrial waste in drinking water. Her cousin, one of few remaining survivors, is inspiration for Senier’s work in environmental public health.

A former NIEHS trainee, Senier is now an associate professor of sociology and health sciences within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University, where she also serves as undergraduate program director.

“I am driven by a desire to help communities that are disproportionately burdened by toxic exposures and to create vehicles for them to promote community resilience and empowerment — especially among youth,” Senier said.

Connecting With Distressed Communities in Rhode Island

Senier’s formal work with communities took shape during her graduate work at Brown University. As a trainee with the Community Engagement Core (CEC) within Brown’s NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, she worked with residents of Tiverton, a community in southern Rhode Island.

In 2002, residents of the Bay Street neighborhood learned that their neighborhood had been constructed on fill heavily contaminated with cyanide, lead, arsenic, and other harmful chemicals. The revelation filled residents with apprehension about their health — and plunged them into a financial crisis as well. They could not secure home equity loans or lines of credit because the discovery of contaminants caused their home values to plummet.

In response to homeowner concerns, Brown’s CEC partnered with local environmental justice advocates, including the Environmental Neighborhood Action Committee of Tiverton (ENACT), a group of residents working with state and federal agencies to demand neighborhood cleanup. The team provided training to community members in recognizing environmental hazards, grant writing, and media and government relations. For her part, Senier supervised two undergraduate students who helped run logistics for ENACT and conducted legal research for the affected community.

Eventually, during a meeting among stakeholders, the Environmentally Compromised Home Ownership loan program, or ECHO, was born.

“We worked with legislators in Rhode Island and got a bill passed that would allow homeowners in environmentally contaminated locations to qualify for home equity loans while they were awaiting cleanup and remediation,” Senier explained. “The ECHO Bill allowed homeowners facing any kind of release of hazardous materials or petroleum to secure loans up to $25,000 and have some peace of mind when facing a disaster such as this.”

In 2008, Senier received the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award in recognition of her work with the CEC. Each year, NIEHS SRP awards the eponymous honor, named after a renowned metals researcher, to an SRP-supported graduate student or postdoctoral researcher who demonstrates scientific excellence.

“It was enormously humbling,” Senier said. “At that time, I was the only social scientist and the only graduate student who was assigned to a Community Engagement Core to receive the award. All the preceding recipients had been bench scientists.”

“Karen was truly a remarkable scientist who put her life on the line to study the hazards of toxic exposure,” Senier added. “I try to honor her memory by serving communities that are burdened by toxic waste, and by mentoring junior scholars from diverse disciplines and from under-represented minorities.”

Seeking Equity in Genomic Screening

Part of Senier’s work focuses on improving accessibility to genomic screening, a topic she first began exploring as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Genomic screening tests people for genetic traits that may put them at risk for common diseases as well as rare genetic disorders. These tests can play an important role in advancing precision public health, an effort to tailor health interventions to distinct populations.

Supported by a Mentored Research Scientist Development Grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute, Senier evaluated the efforts of state health agencies in Michigan, Utah, and Connecticut to reduce or prevent health inequities related to genomic screening.

“All three state health departments were actively working on the accessibility of genomic screening and ensuring that the benefit of genetic testing could be felt as widely as possible” Senier explained. 

Her team conducted 85 interviews with state health agency representatives and agency partners, such as clinicians and academic researchers, and consulted grant applications and other program documents. The researchers found that public health officials used creative and state-specific approaches to reduce disparities in access to genomic testing.

For example, state agency staff in Utah leveraged residents’ deep knowledge of genealogy to design outreach and education efforts related to breast and ovarian cancer screening. Senier’s team also found that state agencies developed education programs for primary care providers to learn more about genetic screening, and helped promote policies that made it easier for people to afford screening.

Research on the Exposome

One of Senier’s primary goals is encouraging environmental health researchers, healthcare practitioners, and policymakers to deepen approaches for examining how social and political factors intersect to shape health outcomes. For example, consider the term “exposome,” which is the totality of all environmental exposures and our body’s response to those exposures across the lifespan.

In 2016, Senier and colleagues introduced the “socio-exposome” as a framework for guiding environmental exposure research and policy. Their concept integrated sociological and public health research findings with insights from environmental justice scholarship and activism. They have long advocated that addressing the health inequities that are so often associated with environmental hazards requires uncovering the political, economic, and corporate practices that drive environmental injustices.

Exposomics, the study of the exposome, now customarily considers socioeconomic conditions and lifestyle factors as part of the environment.

Examining Blue Space in Boston

Senier is also in the early stages of a community-based participatory research project in the Boston area that will explore the public health benefits of “blue space,” or water-based recreational amenities, among teens and young adults.

“I am working with two fabulous groups of teen environmental activists from two communities to see how proximity to lakes, rivers, streams, or beaches can improve adolescent health and well-being,” she said. “We are collaborating on a research protocol that will have them engage their peers in talking about how access to green and blue spaces helps them socially and emotionally.”

Over the past decade, researchers have extensively investigated the health benefits of green space, or areas reserved for vegetation. However, fewer studies have explored connections between blue space and physical and mental health benefits, particularly among young people, according to Senier.

“With my work on blue space and other endeavors, I hope to advance recent calls to address our decaying public health infrastructure and urban redevelopment for environmental justice,” Senier said. “I am energized by the significant work being done already to include anti-racism and equity as fundamental ideals in public health science and policy.”

Jamie Donatuto, Ph.D. – Connecting Cultures: Conducting Ethical Research in Tribal Settings

April 10, 2024

Jamie Donatuto

A portrait of Donatuto drawn by her daughter, who has visited Donatuto’s workplace since infancy. Donatuto earned her doctoral degree from the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. (Courtesy of Jamie Donatuto)

As an undergraduate at Western Washington University, Jamie Donatuto, Ph.D., often visited the nearby Lummi Indian Reservation. Through conversations with Tribal members, she learned about an environmental health internship with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, located on Washington’s northern coast. She applied, and never looked back.

Her internship project involved working with the Tribe and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the presence of toxic chemicals in seafood, which is central to the traditional Swinomish diet. Donatuto was excited to share the initial results with the Swinomish Senate, the Tribe’s governing body. As she spoke, however, she quickly realized something was wrong.

“When I presented the probabilities of cancer from exposure, there was this super awkward silence,” Donatuto recalled. “The chairman just looked at me and said something to the effect of, ‘This is not how we view health; it is too narrow. Go back and learn how it is that we think about health.’”

Donatuto took that advice. Recognizing her dedication to understanding Indigenous health perspectives, the Tribe hired her full-time as the Swinomish environmental health analyst. Now, as co-leader of the Community Engagement Core (CEC) at the Oregon State University (OSU) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, Donatuto strives to protect the Tribe from environmental exposures while educating others about Indigenous health and ethical research.

Indigenous Health Indicators

fishermen with net full of fish

An example of Swinomish “community connection,” one of six of the Indigenous Health Indicators developed by Campbell and Donatuto. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Donatuto)

For insight into the Swinomish way of learning, Donatuto found a patient and knowledgeable mentor in colleague Wanaseah Larry Campbell, a Swinomish Tribal elder. He helped her understand Tribal views of health.

“When you talk to Indigenous folks about health, their focus is much broader than only physiological health,” said Donatuto. “It’s about the health of their family, the health of their community, and the health of the natural world.”

Donatuto’s early work with Campbell focused on developing the Indigenous Health Indicators, a methodology for conducting health assessments that incorporates cultural and other non-physiological aspects of health important to Tribes. These indicators account for different geographies and Tribal practices, providing a more comprehensive approach to addressing Tribal health concerns.

“Larry used to say that your health comes from your culture, and your culture comes from your lands,” Donatuto explained.

The idea that the land ultimately influences health was central to one of Donatuto’s first projects at the OSU SRP Center. Working with Anna Harding, Ph.D., and others, she helped create a new approach to risk assessments that focused on how ecoregions — geographical areas where plants, animals, and weather patterns are generally similar — shape Tribal lifestyles and contaminant risks. For example, a coastal Tribe like Swinomish that relies more on seafood faces a greater risk of exposure to seafood contaminants than Tribes in noncoastal ecoregions.

Different Approaches to Knowledge

Differences between Indigenous and Western approaches to knowledge and data have historically strained relationships between Tribes and academic or government researchers. To improve communication between the OSU SRP Center and Swinomish, Donatuto and CEC co-leader Diana Rohlman, Ph.D., developed a material and data-sharing ownership agreement (MDSOA). Donatuto and Rohlman did not invent the concept of the MDSOA, but theirs was the first to be published in an academic journal.

The MDSOA helps ensure Tribal ownership of data by outlining who can access it and how it may be shared. According to Donatuto, signing the MDSOA established a level of trust between Swinomish and the OSU SRP Center that has enabled successful collaborations to improve environmental health.

“I hold Dr. Rohlman and OSU up as examples for how to partner properly with a Tribe,” said Donatuto. “They have signed that data-sharing agreement and fully respect it.”

Investigating Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

research team at Fidalgo Bay

A research team from SRP, Swinomish, and Samish collecting samples in Fidalgo Bay, not far from a petrochemical plant. (Photo courtesy of the OSU SRP Center)

One ongoing collaboration between the OSU SRP Center and the Swinomish community focuses on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), toxic chemicals that form when organic materials are burned.

Two large petrochemical facilities border Swinomish lands and are major sources of PAHs. To address the residents’ concerns about toxic chemical releases, Donatuto partnered with others at the OSU SRP Center to investigate Tribal exposure to PAHs.

One project brought together researchers and staff from the OSU SRP Center, Swinomish, and Samish — another Tribe in the region — to install sampling devices in shellfish beds. Clammers tended to avoid shellfish in Fidalgo Bay, near Swinomish and Samish land, due to contamination concerns, according to Donatuto. The samplers absorb water in a manner similar to clams, allowing the research team to collect data in a cheaper, faster, and less environmentally harmful way than harvesting clams for study.

Another project sought to investigate individual exposure to PAHs from activities such as burning wood for heat, smoking cigarettes, and fueling boats. Donatuto and other researchers provided sampling devices in the form of silicone wristbands, invented at the OSU SRP Center, to Swinomish community members.

“The magic of the wristbands is that silicone mimics the way that skin and other cells in the body absorb chemicals, particularly organic chemicals like PAHs,” explained Donatuto. “So, the wristbands suck up any chemicals in the environment, just like your skin would. We then collect the wristbands and send them back to the lab for analysis.”

Participants kept daily logs of their activities for seven days so that researchers could document associations between PAH exposures and different behaviors. Donatuto helped share study findings at Swinomish community meetings and distributed individualized results.

According to the authors, participants were more aware of air pollution sources in their community after the study. For example, they reported less frequent use of woodburning stoves and the use of beeswax candles instead of paraffin wax.

group of youth exploring vegitation

Swinomish youth on an educational trip to Yellow Island, a small island in the San Juan Islands archipelago in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Myk Heidt)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

For Donatuto, serving as a Tribal staff member is an honor. Her understanding of the world and approach to problem-solving have changed, she said, and she is grateful to Campbell and all the other Tribal members she has worked with for sharing their knowledge.

In February 2023, Campbell "walked on" — a Tribal term for death. Donatuto hopes to continue his work.

“We say that we stand on the shoulders of giants because they are the ones that have taught us what we know,” she said.

Galen Newman, Ph.D. – Using Spatial Analytics to Address Flooding and Contamination in Fence-Line Communities

March 20, 2024

Galen Newman

Newman is the principal investigator of the Community Engagement Core at the Texas A&M University SRP Center. (Courtesy of Texas A&M University School of Architecture)

Community resilience is a central research focus for Galen Newman, Ph.D.

As head of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and a member of the NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center at Texas A&M University, Newman focuses on improving urban resilience against natural disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding. His work shapes community resilience plans that use environmentally conscious landscape design to improve health outcomes.

“I build a lot of science into my design and planning approach,” Newman said. “We use large amounts of spatial analytics up front to create a master plan, and then we present those findings to the communities so they can give us feedback to ensure that we meet their needs.”

Building Partnerships

Researchers from the School of Public Health invited Newman to join the Texas A&M SRP Center shortly after he arrived at the university in 2011. They were using environmental sampling to analyze the effects of stormwater runoff and were interested in his skill set, which combines experience in community engagement with expertise in mapping and modeling urban areas.

“They said, ‘You bring a unique piece to us because no one else is doing master plans and flooding and contamination mitigation strategies,’” recalled Newman.

He now leads the center’s Community Engagement Core (CEC), which collaborates with local outreach organizations focused on communities that are underserved and under-resourced. Texas Target Communities is one example, with connections to more than 30 communities across the state. Organizations like this play an integral role in the engagement process, helping to establish trust and build lasting partnerships between researchers and the communities they serve, Newman explained.

“With the School of Public Health and the School of Architecture, we have a series of local organization leaders that we work with,” he said. “So, when we work through them, they reach out to the community stakeholders and residents, who immediately become our partners, because they trust those organization leaders.”

The CEC’s work focuses on fence-line communities — typically underserved and under-resourced communities adjacent to industrial facilities. During flooding events, water can flow through these sites, carrying toxic chemicals into residential areas.

digital map showing water settling points
Newman and his team created maps that overlaid water settling points — locations where water tends to accumulate — with benzene concentrations in Manchester. (Courtesy of Galen Newman)

Newman’s first major project with the CEC began in 2015 in Manchester, Texas, a fence-line community located near the Houston Ship Channel. Working with local organizations such as t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) and community stakeholders — particularly high school students — the team sampled air, water, and soil in Manchester and the ship channel area. Using that data, Galen and colleagues created images showing relationships between the presence of contaminants and health outcomes. For instance, higher concentrations of benzene in Manchester were associated with elevated rates of asthma, compared to national averages.

The researchers presented their findings at public meetings. Ultimately, their work informed a master plan to reduce environmental exposures in Manchester.

“Community decision makers and residents were deeply engaged in plan development from the start,” Newman said. “Our process involved a series of meetings that included ample opportunity for the public to interact with the design team and weigh in on design options.”

Among its recommendations, the plan called for residential and industrial areas to incorporate green infrastructure, or the use of plant and soil systems to absorb and redirect stormwater runoff. For example, rain gardens and vegetated channels called bioswales, among other features, will help the landscape to capture nearly 150,000 cubic feet of runoff a year and generate more than $300,000 in annual benefits for the city, according to the plan.

The successful collaboration among the CEC, local partners, and the community caught the attention of philanthropist Lauren Powell Jobs, who awarded Manchester $10 million to implement the plan. While most work was completed in 2021, the CEC team continues to conduct sampling and analysis.

“The work in Manchester got the ball rolling,” said Newman. “We wanted to continue our work there, while also expanding around the Houston Ship Channel, because we see so many communities experiencing the same circumstances.”

Newman and colleagues have also worked with residents of Sunnyside, another fence-line Houston community that is vulnerable to environmental contamination. New development on higher ground had exacerbated flooding around older homes in lower areas, Newman explained.

In partnership with the community organization Charity Productions, the CEC sought input from residents about environmental and infrastructural concerns. That feedback informed a master plan, developed by the CEC and Texas Target Communities, for renovating a 202-acre site in the southeast part of the Sunnyside neighborhood. The plan incorporates green infrastructure like green roofs — roofs layered with vegetation to capture rain — and is predicted to reduce runoff from major storm events by 37%.

Harnessing New Technology

digital rendering of Galveston, Texas
A digital twin of Galveston Island. (Image from Zhenhang et al 2023)

Newman’s team also uses spatial data to power interactive websites like the Toxics Mobility Vulnerability Index (TMVI), which incorporates measures of social vulnerability to determine the risk of toxic chemical exposures during flood events. The tool can inform planning and public health interventions where they are most needed.

Looking ahead, Newman hopes to build on the success of the CEC by incorporating new technologies such as artificial intelligence and “digital twinning,” which is a digital replication of an area that allows researchers to study the effects of storm scenarios.

Newman and his team have applied this technology to Galveston Island, Texas, which experienced severe damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“We built an entire digital twin of Galveston Island and ran some analytics on it, because they want to put what they call the ‘Ike Dike’ down the entire island,” Newman said. “We got some data to examine how the island will flood, storm surge-wise, with and without the Ike Dike, and we ran that over the digital twin.”

They found that the Ike Dike would reduce flooding by 36% and property damage by $4 billion, on average. The researchers recommended additional strategies to improve resilience against sea-level rise, including the use of permeable concrete to absorb stormwater runoff.

Newman shared his governing philosophy for solving urban challenges: “Don’t try to be so smart that you think you know everything about how to fix those communities. The answers lie in the people who interact with and live in those conditions every day of their lives. They will lead you to a solution if you just listen.”

Andrew George, Ph.D. – Forging Partnerships to Reach and Empower Rural Well Water Users

February 28, 2024

Andrew George

Andrew George, Ph.D., is the UNC SRP Center’s community engagement coordinator and spends his days working with community partners and UNC’s study participants. (Photo courtesy of Andrew George)

In North Carolina, 2.4 million people — nearly a quarter of the state’s population — rely on private wells. About 25% of those wells are contaminated with metals, such as arsenic, manganese, and lead, at levels above federal safety standards, according to NIEHS-funded research. For Andrew George, Ph.D., helping protect North Carolinians from those pollutants is a full-time job.

As community engagement coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Public Engagement with Science (CPES), which NIEHS supports, George connects communities with information about the health effects of metal exposures and resources for testing and treating their well water. He is particularly committed to ensuring that historically underserved well users are seen, heard, and helped.

“We engage the community in participatory science — we don’t just parachute in and disappear with the research,” George said. “We focus on environmental justice areas that need help, and we communicate our research findings to the community. That’s part of our formula.”

Natural Connections

George traces his interest in environmental health and community outreach to growing up in Florida. The local swamp ecology and fauna fascinated him so much that, as a middle schooler, he volunteered at a local nature museum where he got his feet wet engaging with public audiences.

A couple years after graduating with a bachelor’s in political ecology from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, George became the executive director of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, a small nonprofit focused on forest habitat conservation. Success hinged on building strong partnerships with communities and local organizations, George explained. More than 30 years later, he still collaborates with some of the same environmental leaders from his nonprofit days, while also cultivating new partnerships.

“I think a lot of our success at CPES is because we value small nonprofit groups, small community-led groups, and neighborhood organizations,” George explained. “We look at them not just as members of ‘fence-line communities’ — places close to hazardous waste-producing facilities — who can tell us what’s going on, but as our active partners in trying to address some of the problems.”

Uncharted Waters

In the 2010s, the UNC Superfund Research Program (SRP) team, funded by NIEHS, discovered that North Carolina has a serious problem with naturally occurring arsenic. Arsenic can affect human health in numerous ways, depending on the length and extent of exposure, and is a metal of concern for SRP. The North Carolina Slate Belt, a geological feature underlying the Appalachian foothills, harbors natural arsenic that leaches into groundwater and can invade wells, explained George, who also supports UNC SRP efforts.

State law requires well testing at the time of construction but at no time thereafter, even upon sale of a property. When George joined UNC in 2015, he learned that North Carolinians in remote areas and people of color were under-represented in publicly available well water data. He suspected that these groups might be disproportionately exposed to metals.

Andrew George speaking with property owner

George collects information from a North Carolina property owner about his well water. George and the UNC SRP team emphasize outreach to rural and under-resourced communities. (Photo courtesy of Andrew George)

With the guidance and facilitation of local partners across the state — such as a local environmental steward called the Lumber Riverkeeper, and the Union County environmental health department — George sought to continue and expand the UNC SRP team’s decades-long outreach to rural and underserved communities.

“We recruited deliberately, to make sure we had a good sample of well users in our study, representative of the people in our state,” George explained. “Our community partners were critical to our success.”

The UNC SRP team and their partners found creative ways to conduct testing, including sending well tests directly to homes, with explicit and easy-to-understand directions. Residents could collect a water sample from their tap and mail it to UNC free of charge.

If the researchers detected high levels of metals, they worked with residents to reduce exposures. For example, the UNC SRP team immediately provided affected residents with a filter pitcher certified to remove contaminants.

“We got these filters to people within 12 to 24 hours,” George shared. “It helps, when you call folks up and you have bad news, to at least give them peace of mind in the short term.”

“We have been able to provide filters to study participants free of charge, a near-term solution that has been especially important for low-income participants,” added CPES director and UNC SRP Community Engagement Core (CEC) leader Kathleen Gray, Ph.D.

Wellsprings of Local Potential

Building off earlier work, UNC SRP more recently investigated arsenic exposure in well water in Union County, within the North Carolina Slate Belt. Working with partners such as the Union County Health Department, the nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina, the county’s NAACP chapter, and NC Cooperative Extension at North Carolina State University, the team has knocked on doors, handed out flyers, left information in restaurants, and posted information on local government television to recruit well users for their research.

“We found that a diverse and representative group of well users was willing to participate, because of our familiar local partners and the trust many people have in the UNC name,” George noted.

Andrew George demonstrating to students

George demonstrates well water collecting and testing techniques for UNC students. (Photo courtesy of Andrew George)

After analyzing their data, the team made a troubling finding. Nearly 20% of the wells were contaminated with arsenic, with some significantly above the federal limit. The CEC’s research translation team and SRP investigators immediately reported the results back to the study participants and sent pitcher filters to reduce exposures.

Then, the team held a community education meeting, where they shared their data, plus county resources for well rehabilitation and other solutions for addressing the contamination.

“We have a lot of expertise on research translation,” George stated. “Sarah Yelton, the UNC SRP research translation coordinator, helps us make sure our materials are tight, coherent, and easily accessible to lay audiences.” Yelton is the CPES environmental education and citizen science program manager, is a member of the CEC, and leads communications strategy and materials development.

What happened after the meeting still amazes George. Well users in one Union County town used the personalized report-back data to lobby the town government for water line extensions, which would connect their residences to municipal water lines. The town council voted to support the extensions, provided design funding, and is now working to secure construction funding, according to George.

“This is exactly what we’re hoping to have happen with our work,” he said. “We get people thinking about the issue. They directly apply our data to the problem. They work with their communities, partners, neighbors, and local health departments to think about creative solutions. Then, hopefully, in the end, they get a permanent, long-term solution that protects their health and their children’s health.”

Partnership Power

The dedication of community partners cannot be overstated, George noted. For example, UNC SRP has worked with Jefferson Currie II, the Lumber Riverkeeper, since 2018, when they conducted a study of Hurricane Florence’s impact on private well water quality in Robeson and surrounding counties.

Currie is not only an environmental watchdog for Robeson County, he is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe that comprises a significant portion of the county’s population, so he has a deep connection with the local community.

“He knew where to go, he knew how to seek out potential people for our study,” George said of Currie. “We went down some dirt roads and to some areas that, I think, previous studies have probably overlooked.”

As they collected data about water quality post-hurricane, the team also asked questions about residents’ testing habits. Of 476 private well users enrolled for testing, the team found over half had never checked their well water. Their findings also revealed clear racial disparities.

“We found that high-income, White populations had 10 times greater odds of testing their water,” George explained. “Also, they had over four times greater odds of treating their water than low-income, non-White populations.”

Lately, George and UNC SRP colleagues have again turned their attention to Robeson County. They will be gathering data to help answer community questions and concerns about how local contamination may be affecting a culturally important site for the Lumbee Tribe. Together with partners, the team will design and conduct community-engaged research into arsenic sources in drinking water. They will also try to address other water quality issues potentially affecting the community’s health.

“Part of why I like Andrew is we’re both here for the same reason, which is to do something meaningful,” Currie said. “We can’t change the world — no one person can do that — but you can help your little corner do a little better. Andrew is doing what he’s doing for the right reason, which is to help people.”

Ashlee Fitch – Advancing Healthy Workplaces, Communities Through Solidarity and Training

January 26, 2024

Ashlee Fitch

As director of the USW TMC, Fitch encourages workers to consider unions as advocates of equity and equality. “Unions give people a much-needed voice on the job and an opportunity to improve their working conditions,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Ashlee Fitch)

For Ashlee Fitch, advocating for workers’ rights and safety runs in the blood. Raised in a close-knit community in West Virginia, Fitch looks up to more than three generations of relatives who served as union members, including her paternal grandfather.

“My grandfather has always been my role model,” Fitch said. “As a veteran and union worker, he taught me the importance of being open, equitable, and fair to all.”

Those lessons continue to inspire Fitch, who serves as director of the United Steelworkers (USW) Tony Mazzocchi Center (TMC)), the primary training division for the Steelworkers Charitable and Educational Organization.

A network of several nonprofit organizations, the USW TMC delivers health and safety training to workers in various chemical, industrial, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing industries. With funding and support from the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), the USW TMC serves communities across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

Career Shift: From Reactive to Proactive Focus

USW TMC group photo

“USW TMC staff truly believe in the mission of our organization and are constantly working to increase the quality and accessibility of training for workers. Without them, and our trainers, we would not be able to make such a difference,” said Fitch, pictured with staff and trainers. (Photo courtesy of Ashlee Fitch)

After earning a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University (WVU), Fitch started working at the same aluminum manufacturing facility from which her grandfather had retired. As she learned to operate various machines, she also grew to understand the pivotal role of labor unions in ensuring safer working conditions.

Later, after graduating from WVU’s master’s program in safety, Fitch became an intern with the USW International’s Health, Safety, and Environment Department, assisting USW members in resolving health and safety issues across the U.S. Her work often included responding to life-altering injuries and fatalities that occurred at represented workplaces.

“Every year, thousands of workers lose their lives on the job,” Fitch said. “It is especially tragic when there are recognized controls that could have prevented these incidents. One of the most effective tools we can employ is high-quality training. I’m proud to be able to serve as director of the USW TMC and help workers get the resources they need to do their jobs safely.”

Training at DOE Sites

Fitch pictured with her grandfather

“I always encourage people to think about communities and workplaces as intertwined, and to think about what types of interventions would be effective across the board. If we have good working conditions, then we have a stronger community, which leads to an increased economic impact and more,” said Fitch, pictured with her grandfather. (Photo courtesy of Ashlee Fitch)

As a WTP grant recipient, the USW TMC’s health and safety training covers a wide range of topics, including hazardous materials, emergency response, infectious diseases, and more. This training empowers workers with the skills and knowledge needed to raise or address safety concerns on their job sites, Fitch explained.

One of USW TMC's prime training areas involves sites operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Funding from the NIEHS/DOE Nuclear Worker Training Program enables USW TMC to develop curricula for workers dealing with hazardous materials within DOE nuclear weapons complexes.

For example, the USW TMC offers specialized training for radiological control technicians at gaseous diffusion plants in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Kentucky. These technicians are charged with ensuring all workers on site are safe from radiological hazards. During the seven-month training program, participants learn about topics like sources of radiation, biological effects of radiation exposure, and radioactive incidents and emergencies.

The training has been an incredible success, Fitch noted.

“With this program, we have a unique opportunity to help educate and enhance the livelihood of workers and communities near DOE sites. Having well trained radiological control technicians protects everyone – workers and communities alike,” Fitch said. “The program is a great model of collaboration between agencies and organizations to make sites safer and create economic impact in the community, all while promoting DOE’s mission.”

Enhancing Disaster Preparedness and Response

protective equipment at an enhancement training

Members of the SERTs team demonstrate the importance of proper techniques to put on and use personal protective equipment at an enhancement training in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Ashlee Fitch)

When hurricanes, earthquakes, or other major disasters strike, the USW TMC deploys a team of specialized emergency response trainers (SERTs) who collectively provide on-the-spot training for workers and communities in the affected areas. These efforts are funded by the NIEHS HazMat Disaster Preparedness Training Program, part of WTP.

SERTs from unions and worker centers help deliver health and safety training on topics like personal protective equipment, debris cleanup, mold remediation, and more. Their efforts were critical during the aftermath of Hurricanes Ian, Irma, Maria, and Harvey, when they trained workers to safely clean up damaged homes and buildings. The SERTs have shifted their focus from exclusively responding to disasters to actively engaging local unions and community groups in preparedness activities to decrease the impact any disaster may have.

“The SERTs team embodies one of the founding principles of the USW TMC – unity,” Fitch said. “Team members have different work and life experiences and use those experiences to help impacted communities, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or nationality.”

Promoting Recovery Friendly Workplaces

Use of prescription opioids and other substances is common in industries where workers are prone to physical injuries or stressful situations.

“Work-related ergonomic injuries have long been recognized as a leading cause of non-fatal accidents in various industries. These injuries can lead to musculoskeletal disorders – which can lead to pain management through medication,” Fitch explained.

In recent years, Fitch and her colleagues have noticed an increase in substance use among the worker populations they serve, particularly in high-risk industries like manufacturing.

Unfortunately, many employers do not recognize substance use as a disorder. Some operate on a zero-tolerance policy, penalizing or terminating workers coping with substance use rather than offering them support through treatment and recovery. But employers should instead recognize the role of the workplace in leading to substance use, according to Fitch.

“To really address the source of the problem, facilities need to address ergonomic hazards in the workplace,” she said. “Aside from that, workers who suffer from substance use disorders need recovery programs that support them – not dissociate them.”

The USW TMC promotes recovery friendly workplace programs, which offer supportive spaces for workers recovering from substance use and help ease their workplace reentry. By providing training for workers and their families, USW TMC raises awareness about substance use and mental health and highlights resources available for union members. For instance, the USW’s Emergency Response Team is available to provide member and family support for those who are in recovery or grieving after losing loved ones.

Recruiting the Next Generation of Workers

2023 TRX skit

Fitch and colleagues perform a skit to illustrate WTP’s history during the 2023 Trainers’ Exchange in Indianapolis. Pictured from left to right, WTP contractor Allison Weingarten, industrial hygienist Jonathan Rosen, OAI, Inc., principal investigator Krystal Hepburn, Ph.D., Fitch, Mitchel Rosen, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Atlantic Center for Occupational Health and Safety Training. (Photo courtesy of Ashlee Fitch)

As director of the USW TMC, Fitch prioritizes community outreach to recruit the next generation of workers. Recently, she and her colleagues have focused on introducing high school students to careers in the manufacturing sector through short training sessions, site visits, and tours.

Mentorship is also critical to workforce longevity, especially for health and safety professionals, Fitch noted. She speaks from experience. As the youngest principal investigator for a WTP-funded organization, Fitch has learned from colleagues with longstanding experience in the WTP network, including Mitchel Rosen, Ph.D., Jim Frederick, Les Leopold, and many others.

Through their mentorship, Fitch has developed practical skills, like how to direct and manage grants according to institute standards, and interpersonal expertise. In addition, she has cultivated a deep understanding of USW TMC and WTP history.

“People downplay historical knowledge,” she said. “But it is very important to know and understand the past for the sake of the new generation of workers and leaders.”