7 hard-earned safety & health career lessons
Is it your job or your passion?
With about a decade to go until I slow down in my career, I’m now at the stage where I want to share what I’ve learned through experience and education. It’s called expatiate. Here are my hard-learned top seven career advices:
1. Job or career?
A job is something someone does for pay. A career is something someone does because that’s what they want to do. An OHS career defies an accurate description. Protect people from harm at work, or harm arising from work is the main part. Add in environmental protection, IAQ in the home (including pets in the home), public health and safety and more. The beauty of the career is it can’t be pigeon-holed.
Bias will be your greatest career challenge. Bias permeates society, organizations, and particularly impacts the science needed to make informed health and safety decisions. What’s compliance bias? Appreciation for understanding bias is found in required clause 4, context of the organization, ISO 45001:2018 OHSMS (occupational health and safety management system) and clause 5.4.1 understanding the organization and its context, ISO 31000:2018-02 Risk Management. There is very little “context of the organization” training available, at present, but growth on this topic is expected as more organizations adopt newly released ISO 45001 and newly revised ISO 31000. Self-learning to understand and control bias, including political tribal bias, is a continual endeavor.
Health practice without formal science education — chemistry, biology, physics, etc. — should not be attempted. Safety practice without a science education is possible, provided actions are guided by an OHSMS and strict compliance with regulations. Diverse OHS education must be continual. For example, every morning, Saturdays and Sundays, too, from about 5:00-6:00 a.m. my iPad is opened to the Flipboard app where personalized OHS interests including medicine, public health, chemistry, technologies, politics, etc. are reviewed. The 300-400 hours annual Flipboard time is supplemented with numerous hours exploring direct OHS topics on the Internet and from other sources, such as the magazine you’re reading now. Continual OHS education and self-learning is not necessary for success, but a career is what someone wants to do – so burnout seems unlikely.
4. Smart vs. Intelligent?
OHS chokes on credentials; some are a valid measure of intelligence, but some are a sham1. There are a lot fake PhDs in the OHS field. Bias for credentials, and what they create and influence — science, regulations, news, perceived authority, etc. — may obscure real evidence and actions needed to help protect valuable life. Awareness that smart people may knowingly and unknowingly fake OHS things may be your greatest career disappointment. Learn to question everything. This dark corner of OHS does add spice to the career, however.
5. More parts
Many parts of the OHS machinery remain to be built or discovered. New controls for machine-human interface, EMF, nanomaterials, pathogens, just to name a few, are necessary. Maintenance is always needed for things known or suspected to cause harm. OHS harm and controls seem to be in a continual need of revision. A recent scientific study, for example, suggest that hand dryers, particularly jet dryers, in public bathrooms spew airborne fecal bacteria up to 1,300 times more than use of paper towels to dry hands after using the toilet2. Before you jump to revise this risk at your location, know that a student researcher received death threats after she posted a picture on Facebook of an overgrown petri dish for a class study on the topic3. Why do you think such a visceral response occurred? Include “online bullying” to numbers one and two above. An OHS career provides numerous, and necessary, opportunities to discover and build new things and improve on existing parts.
6. Pro vs Profession
ASSE, formed in 1911, is the largest OHS membership organization. ASSE dropped the engineer from its name in June 2018 to become the American Society of Safety Professionals. A professional, however, generally requires a license recognized by state or federal government to practice.
There is no license or required credential for most people (MDs that practice OHS is an exception) to practice an OHS career. Anyone may call themselves an OHS pro, even the death threat bully above. Most people that adopt an OHS career will be bound nearly exclusively by personal ethics or ethics required by their employer.
Ethics is a term not easily defined and perhaps hard for other pros to adopt. ISO 45001:2018, the world’s first OHSMS, and ASSP:2018 are timely examples that an OHS career is at the threshold to become a profession. Pro versus profession may seem insignificant, but it requires deep understanding, too lengthy to explain in this article, and it is very important. Your awareness of this issue may be all that is needed right now.
7. Life and death
An OHS career may not be for the faint of heart. A fellow OHS pro recently recounted his direct experience with five workplace fatalities in a 30-year span. Can you imagine collecting pieces of a chopped-up body as he once had to do? I’ve participated in four workplace fatality investigations. The thoughts of each investigation remain vivid and disappointing. Fatalities always include some combination of unsafe acts, unsafe conditions and management failure.
Often only the OHS pro may perceive long-term health risk that may lead to chronic disease or death, such as when chemicals are sampled, radiation is measured, or presence of pathogens are understood. At the opposite end of the spectrum: how many lives were saved and good health maintained by the actions or influence of an OHS career pro? That’s why OHS career pros do what they do.