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Anna Deak on background of Colorado mountains

How a US Navy Nuclear Machinist Became a Health Physicist

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Written by Laura Veith on June 26, 2020

Aboard the USS George Washington in 2014, Nuclear Machinist Mate 2nd Class Anna Deak was checking items off a list. Her tasks never crossed her mind as having anything to do with safety. While on the ship, Deak was conducting a survey of contamination and radiation levels both in and outside of the ship’s nuclear power plant.

As a nuclear machinist, Deak enjoyed the mental rigor and high security clearance required for her work, but its implications on occupational safety and health (OSH) had in no way yet entered her mind.

At the end of her military service Deak decided to continue pursuing nuclear studies and graduated with a degree in nuclear engineering from North Carolina State University. It was not until the end of that program when Deak realized that her strengths laid in engineering protection against nuclear hazards.

“I wanted to dispel the phobias encircling the safety of radiation and its appropriate uses,” Deak said. “That’s when I discovered that Health Physics Program based at Colorado State University (CSU) and made the transition to OSH.”

The NIOSH-funded Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center (MAP ERC) has been able to support CSU’s health physics program for the past 12 years, providing tuition stipends to over 39 trainees. The program, led by Tom Johnson, PhD, has a longstanding relationship with Fukushima University in Japan and conducts a number of research projects there. The opportunity to work on one of these projects was the deciding factor for Deak in joining the program. Deak’s thesis project, which has been delayed due to COVID-19, will explore the relationship between particle size and migration of radiocesium-bound microparticles.

“I believe my project will be impactful in radiological safety,” Deak said. “My findings could be used in modeling fallout from nuclear plant accidents and help formulate more efficient decontamination plans.”

Deak presenting her research poster at CHWE's Annual Research Day in 2019.

As a MAP ERC trainee, Deak has been immersed in interdisciplinary approaches and gained a broader understanding of OSH disciplines outside of her own. “At first, I thought the MAP ERC focused solely on workplace safety, but when I was introduced to the other majors in the program, such as health psychology to ergonomics, I began to see the bigger picture. Learning about the disciplines helped me understand how they fit into overarching field,” Deak said

The MAP ERC has also introduced Deak to the practice of Total Worker Health® which has led her to a “deeper appreciation for and understanding of the other fields of OSH, not just the immediate hazards pertaining to my field,” Deak said. “It’s easy to get stuck on one safety parameter and completely miss the outlying issues that can still hinder job safety and performance. Total Worker Health has given me a new perspective and ability to recognize the unique challenges employee face both in and outside of their job.”

Looking forward, Deak hopes to use her training to tie together the technical skills of health physics with other OSH disciplines.

“Being knowledgeable about physical or mental health issues means I can help direct employees to specialized professional help. Being aware of other resources for employees is a way to look out for their total health.”