February 20, 2020 / Denise Trabbic-Pointer

Proud to Be an IH: The Virtue of Perseverance

This article is part of the SynergistNOW series “Proud to Be an IH.” Read the introductory post for more information.

As a now-retired EHS professional, I look back at the more than 20 years I was a practicing occupational health professional in the chemical manufacturing industry, and I ponder the question of my impact on the lives and health of the people in those facilities. When I walked into the largest of those facilities in mid-1993, there had not been an active occupational health program there in the preceding five years, and all of the required programs were neglected or otherwise in disarray. Employees were told they were not being overexposed when, in fact, there was no data to support this claim and some evidence to suggest otherwise. The recent merger of two other plants into this one had resulted in an exponentially larger workforce. Many workers had been forced to move, somewhat unwillingly. The other two sites had solid EHS programs; therefore, we were dealing with a mix of good and poor EHS cultures that added to the challenge of bringing this program together and training those who needed it while not boring others who had heard it all before.

My background at that time was primarily in environmental management with an emphasis in industrial hygiene at university. I have since obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in hazardous materials management. I am not a CIH, but I was practicing health monitoring field work as the health and safety union representative at the site where I was working—which, as it happened, was one of the sites that closed. When I was moved to the new site, I was offered the Occupational Health Coordinator position with the massive task of bringing this program back to compliance and training a diverse group of people in the numerous hazards and risks of their workplace.

I saw my job as twofold: to quickly gather data to assess actual employee exposure, and to structure OH programs and then provide employees with training, starting with hazard communication. I also needed to get out and meet people in the plant. Most days, I did that with a direct-reading meter for volatile organic compounds in hand. This site managed large volumes of solvents both in hard pipes and in containers (drums, pails, portable totes), and many of the tanks were not vented to the atmosphere. That meant the vapor was released into the room and moved by supplied air to the floor sweeps, past the workers. It became apparent very quickly that this was the likely cause of the overexposures. The data supported the theory that the tanks needed to be vented. The site put in place phased projects to vent the tanks, and the data improved quite quickly to indicate that employee exposures were reduced to acceptable levels. We also implemented local exhausts and made improvements to general exhausts.

Training, as it turned out, was also pretty exciting, even though it was fairly frightening for me. I was not, and am not, a public speaker. But what struck me then and often afterward was how ready and eager some of those workers were to learn about the materials they were handling. It was as if they couldn’t learn enough. I tried to keep the material fresh and pertinent to each working area of the plant. I shared data from the previous year’s monitoring, and I covered the required annual training topics. But what they most appreciated was the list of engineering projects that were completed or in progress. These projects meant that we were not just talking about health and safety, but that the company was acting to reduce their exposures.

It was a long journey, and at times, I must admit, it seemed as though we might never get there. On occasion, upper management resisted acknowledging problems and was more willing to spend money to improve production than to control emissions to the room. I encourage young IH and OH professionals to persevere and to try all angles, particularly when they meet resistance. Data gathering, when possible, is most important for upper management. Placing monitoring data into graphs to illustrate exposures is quite effective, and even more effective if you can show potential future exposure reduction by installation of engineered controls. Finding supporting information from experts in ventilation and other IH-related fields is also key when presenting options to management, along with cost-benefit analyses. You can add the ventilation quote in spreadsheet format to your presentation as well as any other information that supports your case and include any associated project benefits (environmental, production, or return on investment). This is your sales pitch, so make it positive!

When I look back at the years of what seemed like begging for money to implement engineered improvements for IH, I can honestly say that it was all worth it, and the company did sometimes come through. So my final recommendation continues to be: Persevere.

Visit our Proud to be an IH page for more of your stories. To become an AIHA member, visit our membership page.

Denise Trabbic-Pointer

Denise Trabbic-Pointer is an emeritus member of AIHA.


The Virtue of Perseverance

I like this testimony that emphasizes the importance of perseverance which should be a key-quality of all of us. I am an IH since 40 years of experience and retired for more than 10 years and perseverance was my credo. We are palnting seeds but we don't know when they will sprout.

By Guillemin on February 21, 2020 3:17am

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