KAY BECHTOLD is assistant editor of The Synergist.
She can be reached at email@example.com or (703) 846-0737.
Editor’s note: The individuals featured in this series were selected from responses to a survey that AIHA conducted in 2014. For background, see "The IH Hero Gap" in the January 2015 issue. As industrial hygiene faces the forthcoming retirement of a sizable number of its practitioners, Elizabeth Pullen isn’t alone in her desire to ensure that a new generation is ready to carry the profession forward. She knows that industrial hygienists and occupational hygiene professionals want to tackle the issue head-on, and she is working with other industrial hygienists to build momentum. CONNECTING PEOPLE Like many others within AIHA, Pullen saw a need for outreach efforts at schools and colleges and within communities to familiarize people with IH and get potential new professionals into the career pipeline. She learned there were different groups in AIHA working on pieces of the bigger outreach puzzle: the Students and Early Career Professionals (SECP) Committee was developing materials for use at outreach events at colleges and high schools, for example. And individuals like AIHA Fellow Mike Harris were enthusiastic about coming up with ways to promote the IH profession to younger generations, as he shared in his Cummings Award Lecture in 2014. Pullen saw an opportunity to get a larger effort brewing and to connect the many players already involved. “There is a lot of interest in different places [throughout the organization], and we just have to harness all that energy,” she explains.
How to Harness IH Energy AIHA Past President Works to Increase IH Outreach
BY KAY BECHTOLD, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE SYNERGIST
She thought that AIHA Local Sections would be an ideal avenue for reaching out, if their members were given the right tools and a little encouragement. Pullen set out to help pool the efforts of the SECP Committee, the Local Sections Council, and the Fellows SIG. The SECP continues to develop and test outreach materials—mostly for high school and early college students—and the Local Sections Council is working to appoint an “outreach coordinator” for each local section who will track outreach efforts and help prepare members to speak at these events. Pullen has also encouraged AIHA Fellows to get involved. “I feel like it’s our privilege to give back to the profession,” says Pullen, who received the AIHA Fellow Award in 2007. The outreach effort is one thing that Pullen wishes she had time to work on during the ten years she served on the AIHA Board, first as a director, and then as secretary-elect and secretary, before being elected to the presidential track. She served as AIHA President in 2011–2012. “I wanted to make sure that people understood the existing and new initiatives at AIHA and felt like they could get involved because that’s a way to strengthen the association,” she says. “If [the membership knows] what’s going on, and they know where they can fit in, they do their part. Most people like to do something, to contribute in some way, as long as it’s something they can understand and manage.” Now that she’s off the board, Pullen is glad for the time to devote to the outreach project. She realizes the need for more materials and a clearer strategy. One stumbling block is the difficulty of convincing people to help with outreach. “I want to figure out ways to help IHs who, as a group, tend to be more detailed, scientific, and introverted—not the kind to want to give presentations,” Pullen says. “If we can do something that makes it seem really easy and tested—tried and true—and people enjoy doing it, then I think we could get more people out there.” Pullen hopes to involve more individuals who are good at generating enthusiasm—people who can get others “charged up” about IH outreach. “Sometimes it’s like getting the train going,” she says. “It just takes a lot of energy and effort. But I think once it gets moving, it’s going to work well.” HELPING THE NEW GENERATION When Pullen entered the field in the early ’80s, industrial hygiene was thriving and IHs were in high demand. With the creation of OSHA in 1970, “businesses suddenly started realizing they had a lot of work to do and saw a lot of need for [IH] programs,” she says. IHs had their work cut out for them because most companies—even large ones—didn’t have much in the way of appropriate IH programs. But now those programs are fairly mature and in “maintenance mode,” Pullen said, which translates to fewer standalone jobs for IHs at large businesses. “That’s not to say that there isn’t important work to be done,” Pullen says. “But from the IH side, it’s hard to prove that people got a disease from their work, because it may not happen for 10 or 20 years.” In addition, businesspeople aren’t getting big fines for IH-related concerns like they’re getting from EPA on environmental issues, and they’re not seeing injuries and fatalities like they see from the safety side. “Businesses focus on what they really have to spend money on,” Pullen says. “My sense is that for IH to stay relevant, the younger professionals need to have environmental health and safety knowledge. They can still be the person who’s knowledgeable about IH, but they’re probably going to get hired as a safety and health person or an EHS type of person at a lot of companies.” One way to ensure that younger professionals are seen as critical to their businesses is to train them on how to prepare and present business cases, Pullen says. Pullen was excited to see AIHA’s Mentoring Program take off, and, just as she hopes to get more members involved in outreach, she would like to see more people take on a mentoring role for new professionals. Pullen has been a mentor in the program for about two years, helping her mentee with everything from her job to networking to striking a work-life balance. She describes the relationship as beneficial for both of them: her mentee has given her ideas, too.
SMALL EFFORTS, BIG DIFFERENCE
“If everybody just did one or two things, collectively we could make a big difference,” Pullen says. Becoming involved in the new outreach efforts and participating in AIHA’s mentoring program are two ways that members can help the profession stay vibrant, viable, and exciting to the next generation. She isn’t looking for huge commitments from a handful of individuals: if every AIHA member did one outreach event a year, that would add up to about 10,000 outreach events. And she clarifies that the goal of outreach isn’t entirely about turning people into IHs. “Even if we talk to 1,000 people and only one ever becomes interested in being an EHS person, that’s still 999 who have at least heard the term ‘IH,’” Pullen says. “So when they go into their profession, they’ll know they can look to us for our expertise.”
Elizabeth Pullen, CIH, FAIHA
What Kind of Near-miss Was Ebola? As I write this in mid-October 2014, Americans are still getting used to the new and scary risk of Ebola. Ebola fears led to a number of airline passengers being yanked off planes because they exhibited flu-like symptoms and had some connection, however remote, to Africa. So far they’ve all tested negative for Ebola. If that remains true, the number of such disruptions will soon decline precipitously.
Are these events warnings that we should continue to take seriously, “casting a wide net” to reduce the odds of missing an actual Ebola case onboard? Or are they false alarms that we should learn to stop worrying about? Most experts, officials, and journalists say they’re false alarms. But that answer will change in hindsight if a traveler from West Africa ever infects some fellow passengers with Ebola.
Ebola also offers an object lesson in learned overconfidence. The discovery that two nurses were infected with the virus while treating an Ebola sufferer at a Dallas hospital raised many questions. Did the nurses breach PPE protocols? Were the protocols insufficiently protective in the first place? Is it realistic to expect healthcare workers to be 100 percent meticulous in following such protocols?
One relevant fact: every nurse has considerable experience with breaches of infection control protocols that didn’t end in infection. And all too often the lesson learned isn’t that “We need to be more meticulous.” It is that “Infection control is pretty forgiving. Even when we mess up, it doesn’t usually do any harm.” Then along comes a much less forgiving pathogen, Ebola, and learned overconfidence becomes life-threatening.