FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS
SAMANTHA CONNELL, MSPH,is a researcher for the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In positions across many disciplines, it’s common to interact with colleagues from different backgrounds. This is especially true for industrial hygienists, who are regularly the “middlemen” working between departments or disciplines within an organization.
In my brief professional experience, I’ve learned that it’s important for IHs to be able to work both vertically and horizontally. Let me explain: working vertically refers to the typical chain of command, which includes you, your boss, your boss’s boss, and so on. By working horizontally, I mean working across disciplines: perhaps participating in a project with colleagues from engineering, finance, safety, or hospitality, or shifting gears throughout your career to work in different fields such as petrochemical or research and development. In working horizontally, industrial hygienists often fit into several chains of command and frequently need to fully understand our colleagues’ backgrounds, required tasks, and expectations to effectively do our jobs.
Most industrial hygienists are accustomed to working with people who play various roles within a company and have different goals based on their position. For example, a painter’s goal is to complete the desired product in a timely manner. The goal of the floor manager is to supervise the painter and ensure that products are completed correctly and efficiently. A department head’s goal is to maintain client relationships and oversee the budget. While industrial hygienists usually fall on the outside of this chain, they must work to fit in the middle somewhere. After all, when making decisions related to worker health, industrial hygienists need to consider practical implementations that fit into management’s budget and help attain company goals. UNDERSTANDING EVERYONE’S NEEDS When IHs step back and assess everyone’s needs within an organization, it’s often clear that improvements can be made that benefit workers and the company as a whole. For example, suppose a worker is overexposed to a chemical and the ventilation controls fail when tested. This issue may not be a priority or fit into the budget, especially if you just leave the sampling result with management and don’t follow up. However, by working with management to find a solution, you may prove that the system will run more efficiently if the ventilation ducts are regularly maintained, which will also ensure that the worker is adequately protected.
But we must also be careful to avoid becoming known as the “police” or the “expensive department.” Admittedly, management and workers often perceive that we are doing the inverse of helping when we want to implement a costly or task-inhibiting control. Unfortunately, many already view us as the police, which is yet another reason to form good working relationships. These relationships are an important part of showing your partners that a healthy work environment is in their best interest and should be in the company’s best interest as well.
One of the many benefits of forming good relationships is that your colleagues feel more comfortable relaying their concerns to you. Workers and management often say that they would appreciate hearing about potential solutions to issues in the workplace rather than simply hearing that this chemical or that process is unhealthy or unsafe. It’s always worth the time and effort to explore options that benefit both parties. For example, instead of simply telling your partners that they can no longer use a certain type of paint (perhaps the product contains isocyanates), provide them with potential substitutions or engineering controls to manage occupational exposures. Maybe this isn’t specifically outlined in your job description or you’re busy supporting many people, but suggesting alternatives ends up being far less painful than reassessing the same hazardous exposure or dealing with potential exposures from a new product blindly chosen by your partner that maybe the environmental department cannot properly dispose of either.
Working with people from other fields and disciplines isn’t always easy due to varying interests and concerns, but if done in the correct manner, it can be efficient—even enjoyable. In industries where many disciplines come together—the entertainment industry, for example—it is especially important to form good working relationships with all parties involved. For example, as an industrial hygienist or safety professional working in entertainment, you may have partners from food and beverage and hospitality, as well as contractors. Each of these areas has different hazards or exposures to consider, but they also have different operations and goals within the company. It is imperative for IHs to understand what these groups do within the company, not only for hazard assessment and support, but also to ensure that you can help them achieve their goals instead of hindering them as you work toward yours.
For example, you might work with food and beverage to find a safe, cost-effective, cut-resistant glove to protect workers while not impeding their tasks that will fit management’s budget. Or you might work with maintenance and environmental to find safer, more environment-friendly products such as degreasers that can also be disposed of inexpensively. TRANSFERRING PEOPLE SKILLS ACROSS FIELDS Just because you were the perfect partner at a petrochemical company and supported the team well there doesn’t mean you can directly transfer those relationship skills to a laboratory setting. Working with refinery operators and technicians is a bit different from working with scientists and researchers. In the refinery, your partners may have appreciated you learning about different areas and tasks—even getting your hands dirty—while finding solutions to support your recommendation to protect workers. On the other hand, lab researchers are likely to want you out of their space as often as possible and may even want to supervise your lab inspection.
FORMING NEW PERSPECTIVES One of the most beneficial aspects of my graduate program was the interdisciplinary course where we worked in groups of occupational health nurses, IHs, and ergonomists (mostly of engineering backgrounds) to complete a project assigned by industry. The course allowed us all to better understand each other’s perspectives and even broaden our views within our own disciplines. It was also instrumental in preparing us to work with colleagues from a variety of fields in future jobs. Assessing the same situation with people from different backgrounds taught me how to relay information to my colleagues in a meaningful way.
Interdisciplinary relationships are also beneficial outside of industry. In my current role as a researcher, I often work with chemists and other scientists on projects with occupational implications. We bounce ideas off each other and learn how our fields merge to form new projects and create new developments. For example, we have adapted two new techniques for the sampling and analysis of a substance that have never before been explored. These techniques will help us to conduct reliable short-term sampling and continuous monitoring in the work environment, relaying real-time results.
Without the help of my colleagues, I would have never settled on this solution. In fact, my first month on the project seemed to be an eternal inconclusive literature review until one colleague referred me to another. My colleague was working on something that seemed completely unrelated, but we sat down and talked through it until we came up with a novel, successful solution.
New perspectives and an open mind can change the future, which is truly what we need as IHs in this ever-evolving world.
Whose Team Am I On? The Importance of Interdisciplinary Relationships
BY SAMANTHA CONNELL