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Unique College Majors: Chemical Hygiene Officer at West Virginia Wesleyan College

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The first and only bachelor's degree program for chemical hygiene officers is offered at West Virginia Wesleyan College. 

Mel Charlton-Smith, chemical hygiene officer, lab coordinator, and instructor at WVWC, started the program at the school because she was frustrated with the lack of information available in this field. 

"The idea came about many years ago when I first became involved with lab safety and was irritated, personally irritated, because there were no programs out there. Most of the training you had to get was self-training and it took forever to find answers to questions," Charlton-Smith said. 

According to Charlton-Smith, the main role of chemical hygiene officers is to make sure people are being safe with chemicals and equipment. They also frequently educate others about the dangers of chemicals. 

Charlton-Smith said she became interested in the field because she's seen too many bad things happen with chemicals. 

"I've seen too many people, too many almosts, near misses, and I've seen things that weren't near misses. They mixed this chemical with that chemical and that could explode," Charlton- Smith said. 

There are currently three students enrolled in the program that began this fall and Charlton-Smith expects this number to increase once people find out about the opportunities it offers. 

Paul Mallory, sophomore at WVWC, is one of the students studying this. He is happy the major came about in time for him. 

"I find this an incredible opportunity because by the time I got into this major it wasn't too late. I was pretty lucky in the timing," Mallory said. 

Mallory has always had an interest in working with chemicals, but he said he was never really sure why. 

"I like getting kind of with the more hazardous and dangerous chemicals, for reasons I'm not sure myself," Mallory said. 

This major was especially appealing to him because he said, "[he] will eventually gain more knowledge about things that you put together [that] will go boom." 

And, now, Mallory will be able to use this knowledge to help protect people in the future. 

"Now, I can actually see in what magnitudes these things will actually tend to detonate at, and with that I can actually know which things are more important to keep apart from each other, what things people need to be more aware of, basically the whole thing is keeping bad things that don't necessarily have to happen from happening. There are a lot of deaths that do occur in this industry that can be prevented from basic knowledge and proper guidance by an instructor - i.e. The CHO.," Mallory said. 

Mallory's coursework involves a lot of hands-on learning. 

"Beyond the standard degree, students do 80 hours of experiential learning under a chemical hygiene officer, where they learn the details of the job and risk assessment," Charlton-Smith said. 

Along with this experiential learning, Charlton-Smith added that students must also complete a toxicology course, a lab working with hazardous materials, and several other courses that will specifically prepare them for the chemical hygiene officer profession right out of school. 

Unfortunately, for Joanna Gaines, senior at WVWC, she felt like she missed her chance to study this. 

"I'm a little disappointed that I couldn't study this program because I've always been interested in chemistry and safety itself, you know, part of being in chemistry is being safe in the lab when you're doing thing," Gaines said. 

But, Charlton-Smith said it isn't too late for Gaines if she wants to spend an extra year on campus. 

"It's too late for her, technically she could come back after she graduates, just take the CHO coursework and not do other things as well," Charlton-Smith said. 

If other people are interested in enrolling in the chemical hygiene officer major at WVWC, Charlton-Smith said it would be possible to complete the degree in a shorter period of time if they already have a bachelor's degree.

"Other people can do it as well if they already have a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology, or some other type of physical science. It would take about a year if they were full-time, if they wanted to do it part-time, it would take about two years," Charlton-Smith said.