By Hiroko Sato
LOWELL -- Studying trends is part of David Wegman's job.
As an epidemiologist, Wegman has tried to understand what kind of diseases are prevalent among different populations and how they can be prevented.
One way to make a difference for a large number of people is to try improving occupational environments, said Wegman, professor emeritus at the Department of Work Environment at UMass Lowell.
And after four decades of doing that, Wegman will now lead a $48 million initiative to improve mining safety as a board director for the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health -- a foundation set up in the wake of a 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29. The board will help experts develop best mining practices.
"We are trying to get ahead of (potential accident risks) and not wait for the next disaster," said Wegman, a Newton resident.
U.S. Attorney R. Both Goodwin II's Office announced Monday that Wegman has been appointed to the board of directors of the Alpha Foundation. The $48 million foundation was established per a December 2011 agreement between the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia and Alpha Natural Resources that acquired Massey Energy, which had operated the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., at the time of the mine explosion. The explosion was called the worst U.S. mining accident in 40 years, according to Wegman.
Two other mine and workplace safety experts -- Keith Heasley of West Virginia University's College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and Michael Karmis, professor and director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech -- were also appointed to the board.
The foundation is an independent entity that will fund mine safety and health research and development without involvement from Alpha or the government, according to the press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"Drs. Heasley, Wegman, and Karmis are leaders in mine safety and workplace safety, and I am pleased they have agreed to serve on the Foundation's board," Goodwin said in a press release. "Each board member brings many years of research experience and world-class expertise that will help the foundation foster life-saving advances in mine safety and health."
Wegman, former dean of UMass Lowell School of Health and Environment, said he and two other board directors will meet as early as next month to start reviewing what types of research can be done to help improve mining safety and what the highest funding priorities should be. Wegman, who has served as the founding chair of the UMass Lowell's Department of Work Environment, has some governmental experience, including the chairmanship for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's Advisory Committee on the elimination of pneumoconiosis among coal-mine workers. He has worked to help protect workers in various fields from auto to plastic manufacturing. He said one of the keys to creating safer work environment is "dedication on part of the management and workers to use the best-known safety practices and technologies."
Wegman received his medical doctor's degree from Harvard Medical School in 1966 and a master's of science in occupational health from Harvard School of Public Health in 1972. He is a former member of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Standards Advisory Committee on metal working fluids. In addition to his work at UMass Lowell, he also serves as adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.