Motivated by a cousin’s death in a motorcycle accident, Emily Haas felt a personal connection to a public safety project in which she worked as a Purdue student.
The 2012 Ph.D. recipient in health communication gained hands-on experience while working in the Motorcycle Safety @ Purdue campaign launched by Brian Lamb School of Communication head Marifran Mattson, who was also involved in a motorcycle accident approximately a week apart from Haas’ cousin’s fatal wreck.
Today, Haas believes her cousin’s accident shaped her desire to promote health and safety measures, which she now accomplishes professionally as a mining researcher with the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). As a senior research behavioral scientist, Haas not only studies industry safety culture, she has also completed miner training in an effort to better understand workers’ needs and concerns. Haas visited campus on Sept. 13 to accept a 2019 Emerging Voice Award from the Purdue College of Liberal Arts. Prior to the awards ceremony, Haas spoke with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching about her career and time at Purdue. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Q: When were you last on campus?
A: March or April for an event with the Graduate School. (Communication professor and associate dean of the Graduate School) Melanie Morgan invited me back to talk about students who might not want to go into academia and what that career path might look like.
But before that, I had not been back since 2012. It’s nice being back now because students are on campus. When I was back before, it was a Saturday so it was more quiet. Now you’re seeing all of the students and it feels like I didn’t leave.
Q: So how has Purdue changed since you were a student? It was not that long ago.
A: Yeah, it’s only been seven years. I just came from the CoRec to see some of old colleagues. That’s new, and that is such a beautiful space and an awesome resource for students to have on so many levels.
That’s the biggest change that I saw from a building perspective. But just from walking around, it seems like there are so many new buildings going up. The bike paths are new, I think, but I don’t know how much they’re helping. Those are new, but a good effort. But yeah, the whole vibe of students is the same. You can tell it’s the beginning of the year and they’re excited, so that’s cool.
Q: How did your College of Liberal Arts experience prepare you for your career?
A: It’s amazing as I’ve been talking to people, some students today, I’ve been telling them that you don’t know how prepared you really are until you start actually doing your job. You’re in the professional environment and you realize all of these skills that you’ve acquired and tools for your toolbox that you’ve picked up over the last several years.
For me, I was so fortunate to get opportunities within the College of Liberal Arts in terms of teaching different classes, or teaching summer school classes, and working on different research projects like Dr. Mattson’s motorcycle safety campaign. Being able to do all of that in addition to some of the other opportunities I had here made me very flexible and adaptable, knowing what kind of skill to use when or what research method you need to use when. I just feel like I gained such a breadth of experience that I’m kind of prepared to tackle any health or safety issue that we have to address in my office.
Q: Was working as a researcher always your goal or did you come to Purdue planning to work as a professor? How did you wind up on the path that you are on?
A: I always really enjoyed teaching. I didn’t think that it would be a full-time career for me. I didn’t think I would ever just be a college professor for no other reason that it’s something that, for me, is very challenging.
I admire so much how much professors can give to students on a daily basis. And it’s something I always enjoyed doing and still do teach now for the CDC on a limited basis, but just having that opportunity of being able to interact with the students was great. Yeah, I always knew I kind of wanted to do something more on the research side.
Q: What was it like going through the process of getting certified as a miner?
A: Really, it’s crazy to be certified as a miner. You might interview and get a job as a coal miner or other type of mine worker.
The regulatory requirements are you need 40 hours of this training, and that includes 32 hours of coursework and eight hours of this mine-specific training. You’re required to have eight hours of retraining every year thereafter. There is Part 48 training, which is what coal miners go through, and then there’s Part 46, which is what everyone else goes through, which is surface, metal operations, or surface-sandstone-gravel.
So there are different training options, but the interesting thing is when I started the job, going to that training was one of the first things that I did because, not that I wouldn’t be able to do anything before that, but it’s just an easy thing to say, ‘Hey, go get this done.’
I remember coming out of that weeklong class and saying, ‘Wow, I would never be able to go work in an underground mine right now. I can’t believe that these mine workers, who are brand-new, are going to go work underground right now. I could never do that.’ There were all these questions about health and safety and retaining this information and knowing if something is risky or not in your environment. So it really made me realize how many issues there really are that you could infinitely study in terms of health and safety in the mining industry.
But it was very cool to be able to take the class with actual mine workers or people who were going to be mine workers because, since I started, they now bring training to our site and deliver it or we’ll go somewhere locally. So my experience was a little bit different in that I was able to hear actual questions or concerns that these new miners would have.
Q: A common perception is that mining is extremely dangerous. How does that perception compare to reality?
A: The industry as a whole has definitely come such a long way. The mining industry has so much to be proud of because they’ve definitely taken a more proactive approach to health and safety and been looking at ways to improve their organizational culture, which is a big role that people with our background can play.
In terms of where that perception came from, (you see differences) over time. You see the difference in technology and even something as simple as how the lighting has changed underground, where people had to light up these kerosene lamps and now we have LED lamps that people can put on their hardhats. Seeing the advancement in technology is just one indicator of the advancement of health and safety in the mines and even with surface operations.
It’s a shame that it is such a misperception, but I think the attitude change among the workforce also contributes to that. The industry is typically dominated by a lot of multi-generational workers. As that starts to fade away more, you have more people entering who might be first-generation workers. They’re bringing in new attitudes and perceptions, and that’s helping make a shift, too.
Q: What advice would you offer a Ph.D. student in health communication today?
A: I just think that taking advantage of every opportunity that you can while you’re here is so important. You can figure out something that you liked or didn’t like and why and what would you want different if you had a similar opportunity or position. Being here is a safety net in a lot of ways, so if you have to fail at some point in time, it might as well be here and you can learn.
It can be overwhelming because you have to figure out what you say yes to or no to when you’re faced with these opportunities. But I just think that anything that you can do to figure out what direction you want to go is really important.
Q: You mentioned the motorcycle safety program that you participated in at Purdue. Did that function as a type of capstone program for you?
A: I was fortunate enough, and it’s really cool that the award is the Emerging Voice and Purdue has the whole ‘leading boldly’ thing because, to me, the motorcycle safety campaign came about by Dr. Mattson leading so boldly. She made a difficult decision based on student feedback that I was not a part of to really start this motorcycle safety campaign. I came in and could really benefit from that being in place.
I was already working on the campaign on different levels and aspects, so I’m fortunate that it was an outlet that I could study for my dissertation. Really being able to talk about motorcycles and motorcycle safety was a very easy transition to talking about mineworker health and safety and how people perceive risks. It’s amazing how many mineworkers are also motorcyclists, so they’re very interested when I talk about motorcycle safety.
I think it was an opportunity that was present throughout the four years for me, and it just kept building in different ways as my time went on here. I could use it for quite a few different things from a teaching perspective, to a research perspective, and even a community advocacy perspective. That’s pretty rare to have those kinds of opportunities, but it just takes one leader to make a hard but really good decision to do something.