LOWELL — More than 50,000 workers from fields such as manufacturing, health care and disaster response have received health and safety training from The New England Consortium at UMass Lowell over the past three decades.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the list of trainees has expanded to include people who work in grocery stores, gyms, beauty salons and even casinos.
“We didn’t necessarily consider grocery workers or delivery drivers to be essential workers, but this pandemic has obviously highlighted that what they do is essential,” said David Turcotte, a research professor in the economics department who leads TNEC, a hazardous waste and emergency response worker training institute.
Thanks to a recent five-year, $6.6 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, TNEC will be able to continue and expand its training to workers exposed to a broad range of hazards — from toxic chemicals and infectious diseases like COVID-19 to natural disasters and workplace injuries.
“By training workers how to do their jobs safely, we’re helping save lives,” said Turcotte, who became TNEC’s principal investigator in spring 2019.
The consortium will receive $1.3 million annually from the NIEHS grant, with $1.13 million earmarked for hazardous waste worker training and the remaining $194,000 for disaster preparedness training. The consortium began training workers who respond to natural disasters caused by climate change when it received its previous five-year NIEHS grant in 2015.
“This was a record-breaking year for hurricanes,” Turcotte said. “With climate change, we’re seeing more natural disasters.”
The consortium, which normally provides in-person training at the Wannalancit Business Center or at company sites, had to shift its resources online during the pandemic. In April, it began offering free, two-hour virtual workshops on COVID-19 worker safety. And when the university reopened some labs on campus, TNEC designed a one-hour online training that students, faculty, staff and industry partners must take before re-entering a facility.
But the bulk of TNEC’s programs are its 40-hour hazardous worker trainings, which require in-person exercises in full, bright yellow hazmat suits. They are led by Training Manager David Coffey and Trainer Patricia Strizak.
“With COVID, we couldn’t generate that income,” said Turcotte, who adds that TNEC was able to make up for some of that lost revenue with a pair of supplemental federal COVID-19 grants totaling $328,000.
In-person courses are slowly resuming, however. In November, TNEC led a two-week training for the Massachusetts State Police hazmat team at its facility in New Braintree. It also held a one-day training for staff at Millipore, a life sciences company based in Burlington.
TNEC plans to resume some in-person trainings at Wannalancit, offering blended learning, hybrid courses that are half on-site and half online. Turcotte said TNEC’s trainers have also developed an asynchronous two-hour training that people can fit into their work schedule. That course includes subtitles in Spanish and Portuguese — making it accessible to certain immigrant populations and other underserved groups.
“We’re focusing on expanding our reach among immigrant workers and some of the tribal entities of New England,” said Turcotte, who adds that many of these populations have been hit hardest — both health-wise and economically — by the pandemic.
With its latest NIEHS grant, TNEC expects to train more than 4,000 workers annually from across New England and New York. TNEC partners with New York’s Civil Service Employees Association, as well as the Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
“They all get a portion of the grant to do trainings within their states,” said Turcotte, who leads a team of seven full-time TNEC employees, all members of UML’s Department of Public Health.