April 4, 2023 / Abby Roberts

The OEHS Professionals’ Guide to Networking

No one really works alone. Collaboration is essential for a successful career, especially in a field as broad and complex as occupational and environmental health and safety. Often, OEHS professionals find that drawing on the expertise and support of their colleagues is necessary when evaluating workplace health and safety hazards. But no one arrives in the profession with such a network in place—so how do you go about building one up?

Here, three industrial hygienists, each with less than 20 years of experience, share their advice for building their professional networks.

What's the Benefit of Networking?

Every OEHS professional in the early stages of their career has felt that they don't know everything. To make up for their relative lack of experience, many early-career professionals seek out mentors for advice. "If you're learning from someone who has been an IH for 30-plus years," said Melanie Nembhard, CIH, MSPH, herself an early-career industrial hygienist, "they've probably seen a thing or two that you could really benefit from as you're just getting started in the industry."

“There's a lot of IH stuff that's not in a textbook that you need to know," said another early-career professional, Maggie Murphy, CIH, CSP. "And you're never going to learn it unless you have a network." She explained that she regularly reaches out to other IHs to ask for their perspectives on situations she lacks experience in handling. "I don't have a traditional IH background, so I wouldn't be here without a network of people."

Building a network doesn't only benefit younger professionals. The variety of skills, specializations, and subfields within OEHS means it's impossible for even professionals who have worked in OEHS for years or decades to master everything. Joe Dartt, CIH, who has 14 years of experience as an OSHA compliance officer, pointed to AIHA's 31 technical committees to illustrate the diverse range of topics within OEHS. "There are 31 different committees because that’s how many different ways our expertise splinters," Dartt said. "There’s no way that any one of us is going to be at the top in our understanding on all of those different committees, right?"

But in his experience, the committee structure also helps professionals reach out to experts who can help them navigate unfamiliar subfields. According to Dartt, "every one of those committees has two or three go-to people who have been around for 40 years—maybe they're retired now or getting close to retirement—and they’re walking encyclopedias for you."

"Plus, you need friends who you can be nerdy with and talk about IH stuff with," Murphy added. Few would deny that being friends with your colleagues makes work much easier.

Starting Small, Scaling Up

Although there are clear benefits to developing a personal network of other OEHS professionals, building this network doesn't come easily to everyone. Nembhard, Murphy, and Dartt all identified their challenges as partly related to individual quirks of personality. "I definitely think that my major challenge, and one that I'm still trying to overcome, has been that I'm pretty introverted," said Nembhard. In personality psychology, an introvert is a person who best recovers their energy by spending time alone. In contrast, an extrovert is a person who best recovers their energy by socializing with others. "When I get to the conference," Nembhard explained, "I'm not necessarily going to go up to a new person and be like 'Hi, my name is Melanie, how are you? What do you do?'"

Although networking has helped Murphy learn to act more extroverted, “I'm definitely not," she said. "And I definitely get really nervous trying to introduce myself to random people at a big conference."

Social situations involving a large volume of unfamiliar people tend to be overwhelming for introverts. Instead of focusing their initial efforts on large gatherings, such as AIHce EXP, both Nembhard and Murphy found success by starting their networks in relatively small-scale social environments, such as AIHA volunteer committees and the Future Leaders Institute. These opportunities allowed them to get to know some of their colleagues by the time they attended the conference. From this base, they could build more connections.

"Volunteering has made things a little bit easier," said Nembhard. "On a smaller scale, you're able to volunteer and meet a small group of people, and then when you go to a situation like a local section meeting or the conference, you're able to meet more people through the connections you've already made through the smaller groups."

"For me," said Murphy, "it was a totally different experience going to conference after volunteering and being part of the Future Leaders Institute. I felt comfortable going up to people and talking to them because I knew some of them already, and then I might meet people they're with."

Taking Time to Build Relationships

While Dartt acknowledged that he was also an introvert, he also had to realize the amount of time required to build the network he wanted to have. "I think the biggest challenge for me was recognizing that I needed to be patient," he said.

Dartt explained that he had helped create communities of IHs working at different regional branches of OSHA. "It's taken a lot of time, and it wasn't something that I was able to just jump into," said Dartt. "I needed to be patient, and I needed to recognize that there are also a lot of other people who are enthusiastic" about being part of the community, he continued.

Deep connections between the various regional branches didn't happen immediately, but as time went by, more OSHA IHs expressed interest in the community. Dartt was initially discouraged when one of the community's other founding members faced potentially withdrawing while her region was reconfiguring its priorities. But he realized that, by then, the community was well established to the point that he could count on other regions' support for continuing the community. The time he'd invested in building the network had finally paid off. "At this point, I didn't need to be patient anymore," he said. "I needed to be willing to put myself out there."

Nembhard also found Dartt's advice to be patient relevant to her work at the consulting firm Stantec ChemRisk. At the beginning of her career, she felt that forging connections quickly was the best way to build her network, but trust can't be established overnight. "It feels like an urgent need, but it is really hard to develop those relationships," she said. "You have to put in the time and the effort to do so."

Networking at Conference

As previously discussed, networking isn't limited to conferences. Nembhard, Murphy, and Dartt found that meaningful relationships could be established with the people they volunteered with or who worked within their organizations. But the fact remains that much of the appeal of conferences such as AIHce EXP rests on increased opportunities to connect with like-minded people that many professionals would not encounter otherwise.

For some, presenting at conference or attending other's presentations might provide chances to get to know other attendees. Murphy presented two educational sessions at AIHce EXP 2022 and found that she could talk naturally with members of her audience afterward. As an audience member herself, she also appreciated asking questions of presenters whose sessions she found interesting. "Just go up and then strike up a conversation," she suggested. "And then follow up with a 'Hey, are you on LinkedIn?' or 'Do you have an email?'"

But networking doesn't only have to occur through strictly professional conversations, either. Dartt admitted he sometimes worries that other conference attendees have more expertise than him. “I've been doing this for a while," he said. "But what OSHA does for IH is not the same as what consultants do or what 3M does, you know?" He found it less stressful to start conversations on topics more innocuous than work. "Maybe don’t lean on, 'Hey, we're all IHs together,'" he advised other anxious AIHce EXP attendees. "Maybe lean on the fact that they've got a really nice Patagonia bag, and you've wanted one of those bags."

Nembhard's advice for networking at conference simply was to "find friends." And her go-to strategy for sparking friendly conversations was to ask about trips, travel, and vacation. Although she recognized that everyone at a conference such as AIHce EXP is there for industrial hygiene-related purposes, "in order to make a relationship stick," she said, "you need to know a little bit more about that person than just, oh yeah, they know everything about ventilation systems." Talking about travel and other personal but low-stakes topics helped her to better remember the people she has met and gave her a platform to launch future conversations from. "Having that little snippet as you go into conference can really help to start that conversation back up," Nembhard said. “That's why I find friends!"

Taking Breaks

No matter if you're an introvert or an extrovert, you need to take breaks. Building a network can undoubtedly benefit your career, but no one can network all the time.

One of Murphy's strategies for recovering her energy at AIHce EXP is simply to attend interesting educational sessions without pressuring herself to seek out new connections. "I'll just chill and listen for a little bit, have some coffee, and just get back to it," she said, "so that I'm ready to go network when I get back out there." She also recommended attending the more casual sponsored events held during the conference, which she found to provide less intense opportunities for socialization.

Finally, Murphy urged introverts to remember that while their networking strategies might be different from extroverts' strategies, anyone can build out their professional network. "It doesn't matter what your personality is or where your comfort level is," she said. "Just embrace a little bit of discomfort and it'll pay dividends."

Melanie Nembhard, Maggie Murphy, and Joe Dartt will be delivering an AIHce EXP educational session, "C5: How to Start Your OEHS Network," on Monday, May 22, 2023, from 2 to 3 p.m., Pacific time. AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24 both virtually and on site at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant for The Synergist.


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