MELANIE NEMBHARD, CIH, is a supervising health scientist with Cardno ChemRisk’s San Francisco office.
JUSTIN HOOVER, MS, CSP, is the senior environmental engineer for New Millennium Building Systems.
TONY ULIANO, CIH, CHMM, is a senior industrial hygienist for Washington River Protection Solutions, a subcontractor of the U.S. Department of Energy.
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Investing in OEHS: AIHA’s New Mentoring Program
The evolution from student to occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professional is a dramatic transformation, comparable to the traditional path of apprentice to journeyman. Mentorship can assist this evolution, and not only for those at early career stages. Although many people view only mentees as receiving most of the payoffs of mentorship, in fact, both parties can benefit substantially in a mentor-mentee relationship.
Mentees receive pointers on their incipient career, gain knowledge on specific subject areas (such as CIH exam preparation), and receive support and guidance for the work that they are doing or wish to be doing. Mentors receive just as much benefit from the relationship: they can improve their communication and leadership skills, reinforce their knowledge, and develop their experience by teaching. Becoming a mentor can help you identify and improve skills that you may not have much opportunity to cultivate in your current role or organization.
In June 2021, AIHA’s Mentoring and Professional Development Committee (MPDC) sent out a poll to the AIHA membership for the purpose of gathering information on where members stand with mentoring in general and the AIHA mentoring program in particular. The poll comprised both multiple choice and open response questions, including: have you ever participated via the AIHA mentoring program as a mentor or mentee? If yes, did you enjoy being a mentor or mentee? What has been your experience being a mentor or mentee? What have been the obstacles, if any, you encountered when serving as a mentor or mentee? What skills have you developed through mentoring? What has prevented you from becoming an AIHA mentor or mentee? And: did you know you can earn CM points as an active mentor?
The committee received 405 responses to our survey. Less than 20 percent of the members who responded reported that they had participated in the AIHA mentoring program, either as a mentor or a mentee, and only about 35 percent of respondents knew that they could receive CM points from being an active mentor. Of the mentors who participated, 90 percent enjoyed being a mentor. Of the mentees who participated, 70 percent enjoyed being a mentee.
THE BENEFITS OF MENTORING The vast majority of respondents to the MPDC’s poll expressed that they enjoyed their experience with AIHA’s mentoring program. Mentor respondents enjoyed imparting knowledge and experience to mentees, helping mentees complete their degrees or pass the CIH exam, retaining program participants as professional friends, and networking at AIHce, where they were able to introduce their mentees to colleagues and answer questions specific to AIHce. Mentors reported feeling that they had grown in their career, even as they nurtured another’s career through the knowledge they shared in the process of guiding students from academic understanding to practical application of OEHS skills. Mentees reported having great experiences with their mentors, benefitting from the help they received with setting goals, getting direction on their preferred career path, and overall learning from their mentor.
Additionally, mentors reported developing their own skills during the program. In their responses, they expressed that they had learned the value of coaching versus dictating, improved their abilities to network and understand their peers, gained insights into various OEHS topics, and received exposure to different professional perspectives. They also grew in personal as well as professional abilities: during the mentorship program, they improved personal interaction skills and cultivated empathy, patience, public speaking and communication skills, emotional intelligence, analytical skills, and critical thinking. They enhanced their organization, self-advocacy, time management, and goal-setting skills as well, and built their confidence.
Engaging in a mentorship program can encourage the success of both the individuals directly involved and the OEHS profession as a whole, as knowledge is lost unless it is passed along to the next generation.
IMPROVING THE PROGRAM MPDC survey respondents also noted various obstacles to serving in their roles as mentors or mentees, including having too much work (about 19 percent), not enough support (about 10 percent), insufficient training (about 11 percent), workplace distractions (about 27 percent), and personal distractions (about 15 percent). Less common obstacles included goals not being set before beginning the relationship, lack of promotion for the AIHA mentoring program, not receiving a mentor or mentee match through the program, lacking suitable venues to meet with the matched participants, and feeling the other person was not appreciative. These items were noted as preventing individuals from becoming AIHA mentors or mentees. About 37 percent of respondents reported that they did not have enough time to be a mentee or mentor.
The mentors who did not enjoy being in the program reported either issues specific to the mentee they were paired with—such as lack of follow-up, consistent delay in having meetings, lacking clear goals, or not appearing appreciative—or that their dissatisfaction was due to having not yet been selected as a mentor in the program.
Mentees who did not enjoy being in the program reported issues specific to the mentor with whom they were paired, including lack of responsiveness, not appearing to care about being a mentor, being unable to hold meetings with the mentor, and not getting much out of the interactions.
The responses indicate that most of the difficulties experienced during past mentoring programs could be fixed by improving communication between AIHA members. If, for example, a mentorship program participant does not attend meetings regularly, then the issue can be resolved, possibly with a mentor or mentee reassignment. Furthermore, it is key to the mentorship’s success that both participants understand the other’s goals. If there are specific goals laid out on both the mentee's and the mentor's side and the first meeting between the participants sets communication as a priority, then the tone is set for the rest of the relationship. The MPDC and AIHA are available to ensure that the logistical necessities for successful mentorships, such as meetings and receipt of CM credit by mentors, are in place, in order to enable seamless interpersonal connections between mentors and mentees. As with all relationships, it takes work and care to foster a good mentorship.
USING AIHA’S NEW MENTORING PLATFORM Engaging in a mentorship program can encourage the success of both the individuals directly involved and the OEHS profession as a whole, as knowledge is lost unless it is passed along to the next generation.
Some individuals are lucky enough to meet a mentor or mentee organically through their academic institutions, internships, or work. These mentorships often don’t have a formal structure, and participants might not realize that they are in a mentor-mentee relationship. However, this opportunity is not available to everyone—some OEHS professionals are alone at their organizations or in their departments. Additionally, mentees often report having benefited from mentors outside their organization who have different perspectives on professional matters. Therefore, there is merit to participating in a more formalized system for connecting mentors with mentees.
Such an opportunity is provided by the new AIHA mentoring system, which launched on the Qooper platform in May 2021. This new system provides AIHA members with an easy path to becoming a mentor or a mentee.
Through this system, AIHA and the MPDC have taken steps to address the communication difficulties reported by past mentorship program participants. Users can sync their calendars to Qooper, schedule meetings and establish goals with their mentors or mentees, chat with their peers, and even search AIHA’s mentoring library, which provides videos to enhance learning. Much like Catalyst, AIHA’s online member community, users can attend online events, workshops, and webinars; join forums; and receive updates from the news section of the website. The Qooper platform is extremely interactive and provides users with more opportunities to connect with the AIHA mentoring community, including via mobile devices. Both mentors and mentees work toward completing badge requirements to receive a certificate of completion at the end of at least six months with the program.
To read more about the new AIHA mentoring program and learn how to join, visit AIHA's website.