I am always excited to meet newer professionals working in occupational safety and health (OSH). To be honest, part of it is because I am increasingly aware of the shortages developing in our workforce – heightened monthly as I learn of another respected safety and health professional retiring from practice. But even more than that, I am honestly so excited to support those who have chosen this field. I thought it’d be fun to highlight three newer professionals that I have had the honor to meet and recently work with.
Health, Safety, & Environmental Specialist, Portland Parks & Recreation
Current Program: Montana Tech – M.S. in Industrial Hygiene (Distance Learning/Professional Track)
ASSP Columbia-Willamette Chapter Student Member
AIHA Pacific Northwest Section
Jill Cote, MPH
Safety Representative, SAIF
Graduate of Oregon State University, Environmental & Occupational Health
ASSP Columbia-Willamette Chapter Student Member
AIHA Pacific Northwest Section
Julia Threadgill, MPH, CPH
Consulting Specialist at BSI
Graduate of OHSU/PSU School of Public
ASSP Columbia-Willamette Chapter Student Member
Was there an event, class, or person that particularly inspired you to become a safety and health professional?
Kyle: I’m unable to pinpoint a specific event, class, or person that inspired me to pursue a career in occupational safety and health (OSH). Truthfully, I didn’t start out with the intention of becoming an OSH professional—I didn’t even know that it was a viable career option in light of my undergraduate education in ecology and chemistry! I thought I was destined to work in a laboratory or teach. Little did I know at the time how well my broad-based scientific education could be translated into “real-world” applications, particularly in the realm of OSH. I started my journey squarely on the “environmental” side of the OSH spectrum, focused on stormwater compliance for linear construction projects. However, when I started with the City of Flagstaff’s Environmental Management Program, I was thrust into the world of asbestos and lead. It wasn’t until I completed my Asbestos Inspector and Contractor/Supervisor certifications and started working in that realm, that I realized how closely linked environmental issues were with safety and health. While I still tend to primarily focus on asbestos, lead, and other environmental concerns, I’ve since branched out into all aspects of OSH and I’m loving every minute of it.
Jill: I actually didn’t start off studying safety and health. I luckily discovered it during my undergrad years. I randomly took an Environmental Health class taught by Dr. Shelley Su and by the end of the term I was hooked. It was through Dr. Su I was introduced to Oregon State’s EOH minor. Once I completed those classes I wanted to know more which led me to pursue a graduate degree. If it wasn’t for Dr. Su, I’m not sure if I would have discovered my interest in becoming a safety and health professional.
Julia: Honestly, my path into EHS was rather serendipitous. Immediately after finishing undergrad I got a job doing drug addiction research with rhesus macaque monkeys. I did this for a year before I got super burnt out. A mentor of mine suggested that I look for a role in either grant writing or EHS. At that time, I was still planning on going back to school for a PhD. Less than a month after the conversation, a position opened up at UT Health San Antonio for an entry level EHS professional to manage laboratory waste streams. I immediately fell in love with the field and had a pretty strong idea that it would be my final career field. About 6 months after entering EHS I met the director of the EHS program for UT Health Houston, Dr. Bob Emery. During a speech he gave he said, “my goal as an EHS professional is that all of my employees go home as healthy, if not healthier, than they were when they started work that day”. This simple idea is what cemented in my desire to do EHS and pursue my MPH.
What is the most important thing you either learned or experienced in your technical education that was most helpful for your current job, or for better understanding your interests and strengths?
Kyle The most important thing I learned were the legal liabilities associated with the OSH profession, hence professional liability. Our work is largely dictated by regulatory statutes. As the “competent person” in most workplaces we are expected to know these statutes and ensure that our employer is meeting their compliance obligations. Additionally, because our work impacts the health and well-being of fellow human beings there can be an intense level of scrutiny on our decisions, or lack thereof. There really is no room for shortcuts in this profession. It’s a lot of pressure, and as a result we must think and act with care in all we do, for the benefit of those we serve, but also to ensure our own professional livelihood.
Jill The most important thing I experienced in my education was networking. I did this by being active in my student section ASSP and through internships. By developing relationships with my cohort, professors, and professionals in the field I always have someone to ask for career advice, support, guidance, etc. I personally think developing these relationships is important because we all want to improve the well-being of others, so working together is key to achieve this.
Julia I think that my masters taught me, or reinforced, the idea of internal networking. Spend the time to get to know your faculty. They may be able to connect you to people in your field of interest. I met Dede Montgomery through the primary investigator of my field experience in my masters’ program. Dede got me plugged in the local ASSP chapter, which led to my current job. I also think a lot about the ABCs: Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequence Model. We discussed this model in detail in my occupational health and safety class, and I think it has greatly impacted how I approach coaching crews in the construction industry. By understanding what pushes individuals to make safe or unsafe choices I have a better opportunity to be an agent of change within my clients organization.
What was the hardest thing about your academic journey?
Kyle I’ll let you know in 2021 when I expect to obtain my Master’s from Montana Tech. All joking aside, to date, the hardest thing about my academic journey was balancing my time between my coursework and my research as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. Publishing a “first author” paper as an undergraduate is no simple task, especially when combined with a load of coursework in science and math. I had to make numerous personal sacrifices to focus on the sheer amount of work during that period in my life. However, it prepared me well for the rigors and demands of full-time employment. The harder you work, the greater the reward.
Jill The hardest thing about my academic journey was teaching myself it’s okay to take breaks before hitting that mental exhaustion wall. This is easier said than done, but learning this about myself has helped me stay calm and work efficiently under pressure.
Julia The most challenging thing about my academic journey was finding a work-school-life balance. I often felt the conflict of wanting to excel in academics, work a part-time job, and still maintain a semblance of a normal life (and occasionally spend some time with my resident physician spouse). The last two years have definitely felt frantic at times and there was a real temptation to just put my life “on hold” while in school. I’m grateful that toward the end I was able to create a more intentional space for non-work/school related activities and hobbies.
What is the hardest thing in your first OSH job?
Kyle As eluded to above, my first OSH job was with the City of Flagstaff’s Environmental Management Department as an Environmental Technician. The most difficult challenge I faced in this role was obtaining buy-in from senior leadership who didn’t seem to understand the paramount importance of OSH. While almost all of us understand the hazards associated with asbestos and lead-based paint, I would often have to “pull teeth” to receive even meager amounts of financial support to conduct sampling or abatement. This tends to be a common theme in the public sector where resources are limited, but it’s a battle worth fighting.
Jill I’m only a few months in my first OSH job and I’m incredibly thankful to have such a great boss and team. The most difficult thing for me has nothing to do with work. It has been the personal transition from school to work. Particularly in the sense of moving away from my close network and feeling isolated at times. While exploring a new city is a lot of fun, there really is no ‘heads up’ or discussion of how secluded this transition can be at times.
Julia The most challenging thing about my first EHS job, as well as my current one, is also what I find to be the most rewarding part of the job: navigating the cult of personalities that EHS professionals interact with on a daily basis. Within the first couple weeks of starting my first EHS job, I was telling primary investigators that if they didn’t fill out their waste labels correctly, I would no longer be picking up their chemical or radioactive waste. Let me tell you, this does not always go over well. Today, I find myself having daily conversations around safe behaviors and proper PPE use, and sometimes these conversations don’t go over well. However, most of the time these interactions are amazing, and I love getting to connect with all of the different employees.
What advice do you have for those newer to the journey?
Kyle It’s going to sound cliché, but OSH is truly a profession where you need to keep growing and learning. Regulations change, new technologies emerge, and scientific knowledge advances. It’s critical to stay abreast of the current developments in this field. In conjunction with this, I encourage you to join your local ASSP or AIHA Chapter. Lastly, even beyond membership in a professional organization, the benefits of networking with other OSH professionals is invaluable and lends itself to mentorship. Finally, at times you will be challenged on the decisions that you make, especially if there are financial implications. Be sure you can back up your reasoning with the relevant regulations, and most importantly, don’t let your ethics and morals be compromised. Remember that your goal is the assurance of health and safety for workers and the public. Believe wholeheartedly in this mission and strive every day to advance it as a core objective.
Jill While I classify as someone newer to the journey, there are two pieces of advice I would give: (1) Don’t overload yourself on work just to prove that ‘you can do it all’. Only take on projects you can give your time, passion, and interest to while still managing your daily work. While I understand wanting to prove yourself, just remember that quality beats quantity. (2) Don’t be afraid to ask. Whether it’s to ask for help because you’re confused or ask to go to a professional development opportunity, stop wasting time wondering and just ask. That being said, try to find the answer yourself first but once you’re stuck – get help before you lose yourself, so you’ll get guidance that gets you back on track. As for asking about professional development, I’ve learned that if you don’t ask the answer will always be no.
Julia NETWORK, NETWORK, and NETWORK. EHS can be difficult to break into, but there are so many amazing individuals who want to help the upcoming generation of professionals. I actually got my first EHS job because the primary investigator of the grant I was working for wrote me an excellent letter of recommendation to the EHS director of my current job and who he knew from safety society boards. I got my current role through actively participating in ASSP monthly member meetings and networking within the chapter.
I thank Kyle, Jill and Julia for taking the time to share their thoughts. What we know is while we may have entered the OSH field through different paths, there is no doubt, that what keeps us doing it is our commitment to improve the well-being of all workers.
American Society of Safety Professionals
Columbia-Willamette Chapter ASSP
American Industrial Hygiene Association
Pacific Northwest Section AIHA
Montana Tech Industrial Hygiene Academic Program Distance Learning & On Campus
Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences
Portland State/OHSU School of Public Health
University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
Mt. Hood Community College Environmental, Health and Safety Program
Central Washington University Safety and Health Management Program