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Spring 2022

Public Health in Practice: Carolina Center for Total Worker Health® and Well-Being Established at Gillings

article summary

Gillings is home to a new national center of excellence focusing on the safety and well-being of employees in the workforce.

Gillings experts and students are engaging in practice that makes a difference locally, nationally and globally.

The Gillings School is now home to the Carolina Center for Total Worker Health® and Well-Being, one of 10 centers of excellence nationwide funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to advance the health, safety and well-being of workers throughout the United States. 

The five-year, $7 million award means that Gillings now serves as a hub for research, education and practice that creates healthy workplaces and accelerates the development of solutions for complex occupational safety and health problems.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the very nature of work — and the work environment — change drastically,” says Laura Linnan, ScD, principal investigator for the Carolina Center, professor of health behavior, and senior associate dean for academic and student affairs. “We believe the Carolina Center for Total Worker Health® and Well-Being is positioned to serve as a catalyst for conducting important research and translating results into practice and policy-based changes that support worker health in North Carolina, the southeast region of the United States and nationally in the years to come.”

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed the very nature of work — and the work environment — change drastically."

— Laura Linnan, ScD

Key research projects underway at the Center are:

  • Reducing falls and improving protection from falls for firefighters: Firefighters have one of the highest rates of slip, trip and fall (STF) injuries on the job, contributing to 20–25% of all firefighter injuries each year. Led by Eric Ryan, PhD, in UNC’s Department of Exercise Science and Sports, researchers will study 1,200 firefighters in the southeastern U.S. to identify STF events and risk factors, and determine the feasibility of a community-based participatory approach to develop STF mitigation strategies.
  • Pandemic-related mental health and well-being of essential health care workers: Led by Marianne Baernholdt, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN, at UNC’s School of Nursing and Samantha Meltzer-Brody MD, MPH, at the UNC School of Medicine, this study of nurses and physicians who work in varied inpatient clinical settings will identify interventions aiming to mitigate burnout, depression, moral distress and other mental health issues these workers typically face that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to its primary research projects, the Carolina Center offers competitive pilot project funding to address emerging issues in the future of work and worker health, along with an outreach initiative that will provide a wide array of educational opportunities to support worker health and well-being. 

The Center’s first round of pilot funding went to GracieLee Weaver, PhD, assistant professor of public health education at UNC-Greensboro, who plans to integrate a Total Worker Health® approach into an online opioid misuse prevention program she is developing for workers in industries with high risks for injury; and Becky Salmon, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the UNC School of Nursing, whose research on psychosocial safety as a component of Total Worker Health® will specifically focus on helping socioeconomically disadvantaged working mothers maintain employment and improve their well-being.

Complementing the Center’s research and outreach efforts is the School’s Total Worker Health® graduate certificate program, which trains students to collaborate across disciplines to protect and promote worker health and well-being. Students take a course on work as a social determinant of health; a course to learn about work-related measures/methods at the individual, organization, and population levels and how to engage with workers; and a course working directly with local businesses to plan, implement and evaluate comprehensive Total Worker Health® workplace interventions as part of an interdisciplinary team. As certified Total Worker Health® practitioners, graduates of the certificate program have the knowledge and skills to lead worker health, safety and well-being initiatives in a variety of settings. 

“With an initial focus on essential workers, safety and mental health of workers, we are thrilled to be able to work with researchers and other potential partners at UNC, neighboring academic institutions, government officials, employers and workers as part of the research, outreach and education activities of this new Center,” Linnan says. “We hope to collaborate with others who are interested in helping shape the future of work and improving the well-being of workers.”