The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH), a partnership between the University of Utah and Weber State University and one of the nation’s leading centers focused on the health and safety of workers and their environment, was recently awarded an $8.6 million grant that will allow it to further a mission that touches tens of thousands of people each year in Utah and across the West.
The purpose of the funding, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is to provide students with graduate-level training in occupational and environmental health and safety, offer continuing education to professionals and businesses, and perform research that moves the needle on topics related to worker health and safety. RMCOEH is one of 18 NIOSH-sponsored Education and Research Centers in the U.S. RMCOEH has received funding from NIOSH since the center’s founding in 1977 and must reapply for the grant through a competing renewal process every five years.
“We are grateful for our partnership with NIOSH and pleased that we continue to demonstrate our ability to turn grant money into real-world impacts that improve lives of workers and aid businesses,” said Kurt Hegmann, M.D., who has directed RMCOEH since 2003. “We’re here to make sure as many workers as possible return to their families, healthy and whole, at the end of the day. That’s a responsibility that we, as well as the folks at NIOSH, take seriously.”
RMCOEH uses the NIOSH funding to support its academic programs in Occupational Medicine, Ergonomics and Safety, Industrial Hygiene, Occupational Injury Prevention, and Targeted Research Training, all housed at the University of Utah, as well as its Continuing Education program at Weber State. The grant also funds Outreach and Pilot Project Research Training initiatives.
Since its inception, RMCOEH has produced 781 graduates from its degree programs. The vast majority of the center’s trainees assume professional positions in which they typically work to improve the health and safety of thousands of workers. The center’s Continuing Education and Outreach efforts, meanwhile, have touched an annual average of 93,000 people and 8,200 businesses over the last five years.
RMCOEH’s research impacts are just as vast. Faculty and trainees publish approximately 80 peer-reviewed papers a year, producing groundbreaking work on topics ranging from musculoskeletal disorders among workers to wearable robotics that may enable people with debilitating conditions to return to work. During the pandemic, the center helped lead research on COVID-19 that resulted in two peer-reviewed articles in The New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s most prestigious medical journal, as well as several other papers.
“We’re immensely proud of what we have accomplished,” said RMCOEH Deputy Director Matthew Hughes, M.D. “It takes contributions from everyone involved with the center at both universities. It’s exciting to think about where we will be a few years from now when we are applying for this grant again.”
This NIOSH award marks the first time RMCOEH has earned the funding as a multi-university partnership. After the center operated solely at the University of Utah for most of its existence, the Utah Legislature in 2021 passed a law bringing Weber State into its operating structure. Buoyed by the partnership, the first of its kind in Utah, RMCOEH has entered an era of growth that is unique in its history.
The center is currently launching an Occupational Health Nursing graduate certificate program at Weber State alongside a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health. It will add graduate degree programs in Mining Safety and Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Utah next year. RMCOEH intends to apply for supplemental NIOSH support for the three new graduate-level offerings this fall.
“Put simply, RMCOEH would not exist without the support NIOSH has given us over the last 40-plus years, and would certainly not have established such a remarkable legacy,” Hegmann said. “We are gratified that NIOSH continues to entrust us to carry out our mission, and we will do all we can to ensure that workers and employers would agree that it is money well spent.