Findings recently had the opportunity to speak to Rafael Moure-Eraso, PhD, a UC College of Medicine distinguished alumnus (MS ’74 and PhD ’82) from the environmental health industrial hygiene program.
Moure-Eraso was nominated by President Barack Obama to chair the U.S. Chemical Safety Investigation Board (CSB) in March 2010 and confirmed by the Senate in June 2010. This independent federal agency investigates chemical accidents, like the 2010 BP oil spill, to protect workers, the public and the environment.
Why were you originally interested in occupational health and industrial hygiene? "I started as a chemical engineer and had worked in industry for about two years when I decided to basically change careers. I decided to look for a graduate school and get a doctorate where I could apply my engineering training to more human issues and improve public health. In 1971, I ended up at the University of Cincinnati. The university was a research center for NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). UC offered me a scholarship¯so I went.”
You’ve spent most of your career focused on lessening the environmental impact of manufacturing and putting safeguards in place for workers. How has the industry changed during your career? "A sea change in industry has occurred in the United States as the manufacturing base of the country has withered. After graduation, I really immersed myself in manufacturing issues. I was working on health and safety for workers in the oil and chemical industries where issues of regulations and controls became very complex and became codified in the federal law: Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). I used my education to interpret this technical information to workers and describe the rights and protections that the OSHA regulations provided for workers at their jobs.”
You’ve also worked in environmental health policy. Tell us about that. "After working in the manufacturing industry for 13 years, I decided to go into academia at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I was one of the first faculty members who worked in the university’s work environment department with an industrial/labor background. This background served as a basis to look at other work environments in other worker sectors, such as service and construction. It was a rewarding career. I became the department chairperson for seven years and conducted research and taught for 22 years at UMass.”
Is there one particular research project you enjoyed the most or learned the most from? "It’s hard to measure that. In addition to my projects at UMass, I was part of efforts to design international educational programs in occupational and environmental health. One of the projects I was especially glad about was my collaboration with the government of Colombia, which is where I am originally from. They invited me to develop curriculum and teach courses on occupational health for the Colombian Ministry of Health for three consecutive years in the 80s. It was a fruitful interaction. I did the first asbestos sampling ever taken in Colombia and we trained a substantial of engineers and physicians from the government and workers from the asbestos union on occupational health issues. That interaction was personally fulfilling for me.”
How did you feel when you were nominated for your current role? "It was a great honor. The CSB is an agency that I have followed through the years and they are a very active agency. It’s dramatic work. One important reason the position of chair was of interest to me is that CSB operates independent of big bureaucracies and our recommendations for prevention of chemical explosions have a chance to be disseminated widely. We conduct our ‘root cause’ analysis of major chemical incidents independent from the regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) that conduct compliance investigations. We concentrate exclusively in chemical explosions investigations and our aim is to use or findings and recommendations to prevent the next catastrophe to happen. In the job of chairperson, I also saw an opportunity to synthesize knowledge I have from the field of occupational health as well as my university experience while continuing to focus on the smaller but essential manufacturing sector in the United States, which unfortunately continues to contract. I can continue my study of the problem of chemical explosions that have enormous effects on workers and communities and try to prevent these tragic accidents.”
When you are not working, what is your personal life like? "I dabble a little in playing piano. I am very interested in classical music. Washington, D.C., is a great place for theater as well, so I am enjoying that. I am married to Dr. Laura Punnett, a senior faculty member at UMass, and have two grown up sons and two grandchildren. It’s a busy life!”