FSU alumna Dr. Sylvia E. Johnson is serving on the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

Dr. Sylvia E. Johnson

As a girl growing up in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, Dr. Sylvia E. Johnson watched her mother toil away in a shirt factory and ultimately die at age 61 of a debilitating lung condition that Johnson has long suspected was linked to the job.

That type of experience never leaves a person and, in the case of Dr. Johnson, motivated her to work toward safer workplaces for all people.

Today, Dr. Johnson, a 1985 graduate of Fayetteville State University, serves on the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) - a position in which she was nominated by President Joseph R. Biden. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December 2021 and sworn in on February 3, 2002.

"I am honored that President Biden nominated me and grateful that the Senate confirmed me," Dr. Johnson said in a press release. "The President has entrusted me with what I consider to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to align my past experiences with my personal calling to ensure that workplaces remain safe and healthy for all workers."

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is an independent, nonregulatory federal agency that investigates the root causes of major chemical incidents. The agency was created under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree in geography, with minors in mathematics and physics, from Fayetteville State in 1985. She earned a master's degree in biomedical engineering with a concentration in industrial hygiene from Medical College of Virginia, now known as Virginia Commonwealth University, and her PhD in health services research from Old Dominion University.

While in those early days at FSU, Dr. Johnson credits her physics professor Dr. Matthew E. Edwards as a mentor who influenced her to "reach higher."

"You always had a second parent at Fayetteville State, and for me, my mentor was Dr. Matthew Edwards," she said. "You were not going to be a C student in his class. He expected an A. He also let it be known that he expected me to get my PhD."

Dr. Edwards, who now serves on the faculty of Alabama A&M University, places Dr. Johnson among the "pockets of excellent students" he has been honored to teach during a long career. Her most striking trait? "She never quit!" he said.

"Sylvia (and now Dr. Johnson) is an unrelenting individual in her professional pursuits," he said. "In fact, as a student in my physics classes, she always had her work assignments completed ahead of the due date - or else had a plethora of questions about what I needed to do to help her understand the material for completing the assignments. Thus, Sylvia was the kind of student every instructor desires to have."

He added, "I am not surprised at all by Sylvia achieving the lofty position with the United States Government. She is truly exceptional."

“I would have never imagined while an undergraduate student at Fayetteville State University that the President of the United States would nominate me to serve. This honor reminds me of the importance of HBCUs and the unique role they play in shaping young minds. … I will forever be grateful and proud of my FSU beginnings.” Dr. Sylvia E. Johnson, U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

A LIFETIME DEDICATED TO SERVICE

Dr. Johnson has spent the past two decades working in various aspects of workplace safety and health.

She has worked as a faculty member at various universities and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental public health, health research, and statistics.

While working for the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), she was an occupational epidemiologist, where she conducted workplace hazard assessments and investigated incidents that involved worker deaths due to chemical, biological and physical hazards.

She recalled the "gut-wrenching" experience of sitting alongside individuals who had lost colleagues to industrial accidents.

"In every hazard investigation I led," she recalled, "I worked with management to fix unsafe conditions so that employees were protected, and the work continued."

For the past 17 years, her work took her to Washington D.C., where she has been involved in advocacy efforts around environmental and occupational health and safety.

Most recently, Dr. Johnson has been working for the National Education Association (NEA), where she focused on ensuring that school districts were able to reopen their doors to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Johnson noted that she had the opportunity to advocate for a great number of legislative priorities, but she is most proud of her record to ensure adequate funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with her work on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which is the primary U.S. chemical management law.


COMING AROUND FULL CIRCLE

Dr. Johnson credits her career successes to both her parents, the late Herbert and the late Annie Johnson, who were lifelong residents of Elizabethtown. Johnson noted that her parents taught her that "service to others is a privilege and an obligation."

"My mother and father taught me that service and hard work were not optional. However, what really drove my career was my desire to not just find answers, but to offer solutions that will keep workers safe and healthy."

"I remember her (Annie Johnson) coming home covered in cotton dust from the shirt factory every day," Dr. Johnson said in a 2021 confirmation hearing with the Senate Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight.

Dr. Johnson shared that her mother enjoyed her job but had to quit because she became ill.

"Watching my mother suffer and witnessing her death at the age of 61 left me wishing her work environment had been safer," she said. "There were no federal protections, regulations, or even recommendations during her time at the factory."

Clearly, Dr. Johnson is an example of graciousness - and gratitude - and takes nothing for granted on her journey.

"I would have never imagined while an undergraduate student at Fayetteville State University that the President of the United States would nominate me to serve. This honor reminds me of the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the unique role they play in shaping young minds. The foundation, support and guidance I received from the faculty, staff and administration during my time at FSU were significant as I pursued my graduate education. I will forever be grateful and proud of my FSU beginnings."