The WKU Center for Environmental and Workplace Health creates a model partnership for firefighter health research
- Wednesday, March 30th, 2022
The WKU Center for Environmental and Workplace Health, in the College of Health and Human Services, has been working with the Green River Firefighters Association (GRFA) in northwestern Kentucky to create a model for partnerships with rural firefighters to conduct community-based participatory research. Leading this effort has been the team of Environmental and Occupational Health Science (EOHS) faculty from the Department of Public Health that include Co-Directors Drs. Gretchen Macy and Edrisa Sanyang and founding Director Dr. Ritchie Taylor, and instructor Jacqueline Basham. This journey in developing the partnership with GRFA started in 2015 when adjunct professor and WKU alum Charles “Mac” Cann, an employee of the Kentucky Division of Air Quality, approached Dr. Taylor with concerns that were expressed by firefighters of exposures to occupational hazards that included carcinogens in fire smoke. Recently, this model was featured in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, “Using Collaborative Partnerships to Engage Firefighters in Rural Communities” and can be found on the National Library of Medicine site at the following link https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8871703/.
Creation of this model partnership for research has been critical as over 70% of firefighters in Kentucky are volunteer firefighters. Results of research have shown that volunteer firefighters typically have less access to proper firefighting gear, less training, and, as a result, have different experiences in firefighting that may increase exposures to occupational hazards. The team quickly discovered that most research is done in cooperation with career firefighters in urban settings. Several research gaps have been identified through research with volunteer firefighters in rural communities, including the lack of a model for community-based participatory research, limited research on their occupational exposures, inconsistent utilization of available training opportunities, and inadequate transfer of knowledge for public health interventions to aid in reducing occupational exposures.
This research partnership will continue to improve the health of firefighters throughout the Commonwealth. Additionally, WKU students benefit from this research by participating in aspects of each study and from the integration of this research in courses offered by the EOHS programs, both the M.S. and B.S. in Environmental and Occupational Health Science. Courses range from colonnade offerings, such as ENV 120 Introduction to Occupational Safety and Health to advanced graduate courses, like EOHS 550 Principles of Occupational Safety and Health. Likewise, critical experience in conducting occupational safety and health research has been achieved by many WKU students that have gone on to fill the tremendous need for professionals in the Occupational Safety and Health, and Environmental Safety and Health Fields. Dr. Taylor stated that, “EOHS as a profession continues to grow rapidly and there is a critical need for leaders in the EOHS field. Our graduates are needed by industry, government, private business, and other entities to reduce occupational exposures and injuries among workers. The programs are also funded by a CDC/NIOSH Training Program Grant that provides scholarships and advanced training opportunities to students”. An upcoming article will highlight a M.S. EOHS student, Ashley Adams, who is an active volunteer firefighter, and her research with EOHS faculty to evaluate rural firefighters exposures to COVID-19.