Dive Right In Stepping Up as an Early Career Professional
How would you describe the career path of an industrial hygienist? I don’t know about you, but I had this idea that we start out as “pump jockeys,” hanging pumps on workers to collect personal air samples. Once we’ve mastered the technical and measurement aspects of the field, we move on to defining annual plans and managing so-called pump jockeys. Then one day we take on a corporate role, writing company procedures while trying to make sure we remember all we’ve learned along the way.

If you’re reading this article, you probably know that’s only one of many possible paths. IHs are often expected to take on wide-ranging roles; yours might require knowledge of a broad range of subjects depending on the industry you work in. Management’s understanding of IH further affects how hygienists are positioned in the workplace. These realities may contribute to a completely different career path for some IHs, particularly in their early years.  Are you (or a student or young professional you know) exploring a career in IH? If so, I hope you’ll find my early-career experience helpful on your path. I also encourage you to refer to AIHA’s IH Professional Pathway program, which helps illustrate the various career stages of the profession. But before you head over there, here’s what I experienced early in my career.
In Switzerland, the notion of a “junior IH” or early career professional doesn’t really exist.
SAMANTHA CONNELL, MSPH, is an industrial hygienist for Syngenta in Monthey, Switzerland. She can be reached via email.
WHAT I THOUGHT I’D BE DOING When I was hired by Syngenta, an agrochemical company headquartered in Switzerland, I knew I’d be a principal site hygienist and that my role would include indirectly managing the IH program. Having completed my education in the U.S., I was under the impression that I might be on site with a more experienced IH or HSE professional at this early stage in my career, but that wasn’t the case. When you join a company in the U.S., there’s typically a career development plan in place for hygienists who are just starting out—at least if you’re working in consulting or at a larger company with well-developed HSE programs. But in Switzerland, the notion of a “junior IH” or early career professional doesn’t really exist. WHAT I’M ACTUALLY DOING I’m the site industrial hygienist for Syngenta Crop Protection in Monthey, Switzerland, where we manufacture active ingredients, or AIs. Monthey is Syngenta’s largest AI site, with around 1,000 employees. In addition to my responsibilities as the site hygienist, I work with our regional hygienist, who covers Europe and the Middle East, and another AI site hygienist to develop guidelines for exposure monitoring within Syngenta. I also write site directives for IH programs, including exposure monitoring, maternity protection, and noise—a task I previously associated with corporate hygienists with years of experience. Another significant, unexpected responsibility I have is to assess the maturity of the site IH programs and evaluate the specific needs of the site to decide priorities for the coming year. While these decisions are made with the aid and approval of my boss and the site leadership team, I’ve found that my input is valued, which is encouraging for an early career IH.  During my first year on site, I introduced the Bayesian statistical framework, which sparked real interest in understanding exposure monitoring data: people wanted to know, “what do we do with these numbers anyway?”  With my boss’s support, we were able to make the “10-percent engineering design target,” which is intended to ensure that all new installations are designed to 10 percent of the OEL, one of the site’s priorities for 2017. While Syngenta as a company already aims to control exposures to 10 percent of the OEL, my fellow hygienists likely understand that it takes more than writing it down to implement targets like these; education and training are necessary to ensure proper implementation. Designing installations is one of my favorite tasks, and it also happens to be a good opportunity to educate our partners in production and engineering. We handle a lot of solids on site, and I work with engineers to design new installations or modify current ones. I help define the necessary level of containment by assessing things like a product’s toxicity and volatility, its packaging, and associated work practices. Another task I’ve enjoyed is redefining the maternity protection program for women who are or wish to become pregnant. This is a tricky subject in Switzerland, where personal physicians make the final decision on whether a woman can stay in her current job or if she needs a modified post during her pregnancy. My role remains extremely difficult as I constantly aim to make processes more efficient and envision how I’d like things to be done in the future, all while “fighting fires” and working to convince people that continuous improvement is necessary. Then again, isn’t that what hygienists can expect in general HSE roles?