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By training teenagers in job safety, PSRPs fill a need

AFT members have a rich record of community engagement, building long-term relationships with families and local organizations based on trust. When our members learn of a need—especially one related to education, health or safety—they rise to the occasion.

Take two PSRPs, for example: Rendy Hahn, secretary for the Cahokia, Ill., school district's maintenance department, and Connie McKenna, a special education paraprofessional in nearby Fairview Heights. Hahn belongs to the Cahokia Federation of Teachers, while McKenna is a member of the Pontiac-William Holliday Federation of Teachers, both in southern Illinois.

Illinois students during workplace safety trainingAlthough they belong to different local unions, the two started enrolling in AFT train-the-trainer courses a few years ago with a hand from the Illinois Federation of Teachers. They've trained their colleagues in behavior management, bullying, conflict management and workplace safety.

Last fall, the IFT approached Hahn and McKenna with a new opportunity—to teach high school and college students about workplace safety through a federal training program called "Talking Safety." They said yes.

"We took a leap of faith," says Hahn, whose administrative job includes ordering supplies and everything else the school district needs. "I've never been in a classroom. I never work with kids face to face."

Hahn and McKenna teamed up to train about 30 students who work on set production and media at the Village Theatre in Centreville, a small community between East St. Louis and Cahokia. The theater was founded by jazz great Eddie Fisher and is now run by his widow. It gives young people a chance to learn job skills, and last fall's AFT training aimed to keep them safe—both at the theater and at their other after-school jobs.

Teens often enter the workforce with no guidance on how to stay safe, Hahn says. The course they taught, developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, teaches age limits on certain dangerous jobs, and such practical issues as handling chemicals, knives and other dangerous equipment. Students learn not to leave a stove unattended and not to throw water on a grease fire, as well as ergonomic tips like getting a floor mat if you're standing on cement for long periods. The course also covers first aid and how to report hazards and accidents.

McKenna says she and Hahn were impressed with how complete the NIOSH training materials are. "It's just add water and stir," she says.

The need is there, she adds. "In certain industries, training is sort of an afterthought," McKenna says. "Sometimes employers only give training if they know they're going to be inspected."

By stepping in to provide needed training, McKenna and Hahn went well beyond strengthening ties within their own community, important as that is. They also helped out fellow members literally around the world. The course is now part of the AFT's online curriculum sharing program, Share My Lesson.

"The kids were wonderful. They had all kinds of questions," Hahn says. "It's very enjoyable when you get that 'aha' moment."

Then she adds: "To be honest, I'm hoping that I'll be able to continue training after I retire." That speaks to Hahn's larger goal as an education professional, a unionist and a mom: her desire to help students "stop and think a little bit, keep them safe."

[Annette Licitra/IFT photo]