Professional development
WHAT ATTRACTS PEOPLE TO EHS CAREERS?

Job Outlook 2014

Students often find an environmental, health and safety major is the perfect mix of science and helping people – so why aren't more aware that EHS is a career option?

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More EHS career stories

Not knowing can be fatal. That is the message from Sheree Norton-Ward, who remembers the alarmed look on her obstetrician’s face when her husband mentioned that he had been a dog handler during the Vietnam War. The doctor said their child could have birth defects because of his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Her child was born healthy, but Norton-Ward believes her husband being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – as well as other chemicals later as a firefighter – played a role in his death from cancer more than a decade ago.

At the time in the late 1970s, when her husband was a firefighter, “They knew to fight the flame, but they never thought of what they were breathing in,” Norton-Ward said, adding that personal protective equipment technology and awareness among workers is much higher now.

While working as a secretary after her husband’s death, Norton-Ward took advantage of every opportunity to learn about safety – from classes with FEMA to safety meetings with firefighters.

She said her current employer treats safety as No. 1 and provides PPE and hazardous material training to all employees.

Her personal tie to safety “makes me better because I don’t just call it in; I believe in it,” Norton-Ward said. “When it touches you, it makes it a whole lot more important to share the message.”

 

Working as a wedding coordinator at a conference center was just a job for Kim Bienski – not a calling. So when a family friend reached out to her about a position as a safety professional with a small contractor company, she said yes.

At the time, Bienski had completed only a handful of general education classes leading toward a degree in education and had no formal training in environmental, health and safety. During the interview, she was told part of the job would be attending classes full-time (at the employer’s expense) to complete a degree in safety management technology.

The role also involved recordkeeping, issuing personal protective equipment and providing employee training. Initially, Bienski thought this was just another job with perks. But when she started taking the required OSHA safety courses, the training resonated with her. She graduated at the top of her class and realized compassion was the key to engaging with workers.

“My biggest accomplishment is when I am able to make a significant change in a worker’s attitude towards safety,” she said. “When someone asks me about my career, I tell them I fell into safety on accident, and never looked back.”

As a kid, Bienski was torn between becoming a teacher or working in the health field. For her, safety combines the best of both worlds.

“The teaching part is employee training, and the health part is preservation of the employees’ health,” she said.

 

Danielle Denne went to Brigham Young University with the intention of becoming an environmental engineer, but during her sophomore year realized she did not like the engineering part. She met with a counselor, who directed her to occupational safety and health. Learning about OSHA, environmental regulations and industrial hygiene appealed to Denne, who said she also liked that being in safety would allow her to make a difference in the lives of workers.

In her current position at WCF she oversees safety training for customers of the insurance company as well as the safety content of their website.

“I love what I do,” Denne said. “I feel lucky to do what I am passionate about every day. My favorite part of my job, we do a lot of consulting, is actually sitting down with a customer and seeing that lightbulb go off, when they actually get why safety is important.”

‘I cannot imagine doing anything else’

Below are more stories about how safety professionals got their start.

“I crushed my leg in a forklift accident. In complaining about the forklift condition, lack of training and work surface conditions, I was challenged by a manager that if I thought I could do better, then I should speak up. I proceeded to the office of the company president and laid that gauntlet on his desk. The rest of the story is history. I have been in the safety field now for 28 years.”

“I could not handle the blood and guts of nursing. Since I had a heavy chemistry and math background, I looked through the college catalog and made a list of all the degrees most of my credits would transfer into. One of them was environmental, health and safety. This was the late ‘80s and I had no idea what the heck those folks did. At a college party, I ran into a guy who was in that program. He was telling me how interesting it was and it had 100 percent job placement upon graduation. I was a broke kid, and all I needed to hear was ‘100 percent job placement’ and I was in. I have never looked back and it was one of [my] biggest strokes of luck ever.”

“I was in between jobs and working security to pay the bills. The safety supervisor at the facility had heard I could write and handed me a stack of papers and asked if I could make it into something people would understand. I took it home, put together a program and handed it back to him the next morning. He walked off with it and came back 20 minutes later and said, ‘Effective immediately, you’re transferred to safety. Come with me.’ I was bitten by the safety bug and it’s been my passion now for 24 years.”

“I was employed at a small construction firm and was injured off the job. During my recovery, the management never contacted me. This led me to seriously evaluate how much consideration was given to employees’ health and safety. I started taking OSHA classes and got my first position a few months later. [I’ve been] exclusively in the field since.”

“One day I was called into a meeting with our plant manager and the VP of operations, handed a folder with a checklist inside, and told I was going to be the new safety director. I knew absolutely nothing about the field of safety. But over the past four years I have received several certifications, and have attended so many training courses I have lost count. I love the field and I love my job – I cannot imagine doing anything else!”

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