ED RUTKOWSKI is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the June 2014 issue of its magazine Spectrum, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) called on its members to identify the “heroes” of engineering—practitioners whose transcendent accomplishments should be celebrated not only by the profession but by the public at large. “Engineering needs more heroes,” wrote G. Pascal Zachary, a journalist and biographer of the engineer Vannevar Bush. Bush contributed to achievements such as the Manhattan Project and the mass production of penicillin, and is widely credited with predicting the personal computer and the Internet many years before either was invented. Zachary’s article lamented the fact that Bush is not a household name even among engineers, let alone the general public. Outside a vanishingly small group of historical figures—Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and that’s about it—few engineers have attained a status worthy of their contributions to society, according to Zachary. Further, the lack of engineering heroes has consequences for the profession itself:
"Celebrating heroes is a good way to inspire young people and inform the public, of course. But it’s not just a luxury or diversion that the profession can do without. The hero deficit is in fact bad for engineering because it diminishes the enterprise in the eyes of the public, and it constricts the flow of talent into the field."
With due respect to Zachary, engineers aren’t all that bad off in this respect. They may indeed have a “hero deficit,” but the profession itself enjoys a relatively high profile. Most people have at least a basic understanding of what engineering is, not least through celebratory portrayals in popular culture. In just the most recent example, the movie The Imitation Game dramatizes the contributions of Alan Turing, a pioneer in computer science, to the breaking of Nazi Germany’s supposedly unbreakable code during World War II. Industrial hygiene, by contrast, is largely anonymous, despite its contributions to protecting workers and communities. Nearly every single living person in the Western world has benefited in some fashion from industrial hygiene, yet the next big-budget movie about an industrial hygienist will be the first. The essence of protection, after all, is to keep bad things from happening, which is much more difficult to dramatize than wartime code breaking. But Zachary’s main point is well taken: every profession needs heroes. To that end, AIHA and The Synergist are looking for your suggestions of modern-day IH heroes. We got the ball rolling last autumn when we invited members to take an online survey asking for responses to a simple question: who do you admire? Nearly 150 responses identified dozens of admired IHs, and some of these individuals will be featured each month in the digital edition of The Synergist. But we welcome additional suggestions—send them to email@example.com, and keep an eye on your inbox for each month’s announcement of the latest digital Synergist.
The IH Hero Gap
Who Are the Most Admired Industrial Hygienists?
BY ED RUTKOWSKI, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE SYNERGIST
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.