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? 
DIVING IN HEADFIRST Diving into such a big role early in your career comes with ups and downs. Let’s start with the positives. First, taking on a role with more responsibility helps you gain leadership and technical experience—and fast. I’m fortunate to work for a company that’s confident in me, which helps me continue building confidence in myself. Plus, the best way to master something is to tackle it head on. When you’re responsible for convincing your colleagues that your solution or idea is the best option, it’s up to you to study up, which in turn improves your understanding of the subjects at hand. Of course, you should always be sure before selling your ideas to someone else, but that’s not always easy for young professionals. One of the biggest difficulties of my job, the complexity of our site, has also contributed to some of my most fruitful experiences. We have many nonstandard operations underway and a variety of chemicals in use daily, so it’s challenging to be the sole IH professional. I often have to take a broad approach for these complex situations, which forces me to strategize and decide what’s most critical.  Although I don’t have my “super IH network” at my fingertips, I’m fortunate to have a supportive boss who helps me grow in my role and pushes me to develop others. For example, by leveraging and building the skills of the HSE coordinators we have for each sector, we’ve developed a mini IH team to help take care of general subjects on a broad level. Another downside of being the only IH on site is that I often don’t have time to read up on subjects in detail. Luckily I have a strong network of incredibly talented IHs in the U.S., but in certain moments, I realize how much I miss being on a site with multiple IHs or working in a country with a robust IH network. Just the other day, I called an old colleague to ask a question about asbestos, and it was as if I received years’ worth of coursework and experience in a one-hour phone conversation.  Finally, the most challenging part of taking on this type of role early in my career is that I’m considered “the expert.” While it’s better that I’m the expert as opposed to someone who isn’t an IH, it adds a lot of pressure. This is another reason why my U.S. network is so important, as I often contact previous mentors, colleagues, and friends to get second opinions.  MAJOR LESSON LEARNED It can be a huge learning experience to tackle a big role early in your career, but it might mean that you miss out on some important steps and technical experiences. I would have appreciated the opportunity to work under or alongside a seasoned IH for longer, and I wish I could have had the chance to do certain tasks myself before being responsible for writing company policies about those tasks. There are also a few IH subject areas that I wish I knew more about, as I may have only breezed over them during an internship.  For any fellow young professionals in a similar situation, my advice is to trust your instincts; it’s possible that your gut instinct is correct even if a more seasoned professional is telling you otherwise. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take the time to educate yourself via resources or other professionals. And remember: you certainly have the right (better still, the obligation) to admit that you do not know something, yet.