A New Landscape

AIHce 2015 Speakers Grapple with the Changing Nature of Work

The first-ever AIHce Welcome Party attracted large crowds to Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Plaza on Sunday, May 31, for catered food, live music, and adult beverages. The outdoor entertainment proved to be a popular way to open the premier conference for industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals, who enjoyed relaxing and networking in the mild Utah evening.
Two blocks west, at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the conference proper got underway the next morning with an engaging presentation by Alison Levine, who highlighted the parallels between the workplace and business environments and the world of extreme adventure. Levine’s energy and humor set the stage for four days of education on the latest issues in worker health protection, while the lectures and general sessions revolved around themes of leadership, the challenges presented by global supply chains, and the need to increase industrial hygiene capacity worldwide.
Opening Session Speaker Alison Levine signs copies of her book On the Edge at the AIHA booth.
A LEADER IN THE EXTREME Speaking to a capacity crowd, Levine discussed her role as captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. The group of five set out on their two-month adventure in 2002. To acclimatize their bodies to the extreme altitude, Everest climbers are required to embark on a series of ascents and descents between the Everest base camp at 18,000 feet and other camps situated farther up the 29,000-foot peak. Constantly reversing course caused some psychological distress for the team, Levine said: “You have to remember that even though you’re going backwards, you’re still making progress.” She advised attendees to adopt a similar perspective when dealing with professional challenges. “For whatever reason, we believe that progress has to go in one direction,” Levine said. “Don’t look at backtracking as losing ground. Backing up is not the same as backing down.”
The team’s acceptance of that principle was tested just a few hundred feet from the summit, when a storm set in, severely limiting visibility. In those conditions, when the team had used most of its supplies and taking a single step required five to ten deep breaths of Everest’s vanishingly thin air, the team had to choose either to carry on or end their expedition. They decided that the conditions were too treacherous to continue.
“Turning around was harder than continuing on,” Levine said, since the team was so close to its goal. But “the key to surviving is you have to be able to take action based on the situation at the time, and not based on some plan. If the conditions aren’t right, you turn around, you cut your losses, and you walk away.
“One person’s bad decision can bring down an entire team.”
Although the team did not reach the summit of Everest, Levine decided to try again. Spurred by the memory of a deceased friend to whom she dedicated her climb, Levine summited Everest on May 24, 2010. But in many ways she looks back more fondly on her first, unsuccessful attempt. “It’s not about spending a few minutes at the summit,” Levine said. “It’s about the lessons you learn on the way up and what you do to be better going forward.”