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The Story Behind the Story: I AM IH’s Robert Kirkby Steps Up for the Profession

We could talk about Robert Kirkby’s qualifications and AIHA involvement for days. A Certified Industrial Hygienist, he serves on AIHA’s Opioids Working Group and the AIHA Cannabis Industry Health and Safety Task Force. When he isn’t busy developing safety protocols, Robert is also an instructor and consultant to the forensic science community, and has been serving as the ASSE Mid-Michigan Chapter President since 2013. 

AIHA: Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and your professional background?

RK: I started my career as a hazardous materials chemist working for a waste treatment company followed by work in both drinking water and wastewater treatment. For the last ten-plus years, I’ve been performing industrial hygiene and occupational safety for law enforcement agencies. A majority of that work involves the development of safety protocols and training for employees who handle highly hazardous drugs in forensic laboratories. 

AIHA: How did you first get involved with AIHA and the I AM IH​ campaign? 

RK: I’ve been an AIHA member since 2007 and was a student member many years before that. But I was never active until I participated in the I AM IH campaign in early 2017. I became involved with the I AM IH campaign after reading an AIHA e-mail calling for entries to the I AM IH documentary series. The tagline read, “Everyone has a story. We want to hear yours!” 

I was involved with Toastmasters International for over a decade, working on developing my public speaking and communication skills. One thing that I learned and began teaching others is that every single person has an important and unique story to tell. So the AIHA call for entries just resonated with me. I certainly hope that AIHA continues to highlight the stories of its membership. The videos have been fantastic.

AIHA: Do you attend AIHce events? If so, what's your experience been like? 

RK: Prior to AIHce 2017 in Seattle, I had only attended one other event, which was AIHce 2007 in Philadelphia. AIHce 2017 was a fantastic experience. I am the sole health and safety professional at my place of employment, so I enjoyed meeting and talking with others in the profession. I also enjoyed meeting AIHA staff members at the Hub and finding out all the incredible things that AIHA does and how many opportunities are available to members. I realized that I had not been taking full advantage of my membership in AIHA, but that has changed.

AIHA: You recorded a video for the I AM IH campaign with the AIHA team this summer. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? 

RK: Prior to entering the health and safety profession, I had done some behind-the-camera television production work for a PBS station, so I had a good idea what to expect during the shoot. But it was a little awkward at first to be standing in front of cameras and answering questions. 

Ben Rome [AIHA’s marketing manager] and the video production crew helped me feel at ease, and I realized I just needed to relax and tell my story. The production crew grabbed a lot of footage and then did the incredible work of pulling together a good story about my experience in IH. 

AIHA: Looking forward to 2018, do you see any major changes coming to the IH field? 

RK: Two major challenges that I see are: 

1) The IH profession needs to show the world that it is a relevant and vital contributor to worker health and our economy. People need to know what IH is and how it impacts the world. Those of us in this field know IH’s impact because we are immersed in it every single day. We need to share our story, but scientists tend to avoid storytelling because it often feels incompatible with our work. 

2) Our profession needs to develop the next generation of IHs to continue our work and pass on the knowledge and experience. These aren’t necessarily changes, but growing challenges that need to be addressed. 

AIHA: What are you most excited about in the coming year? 

RK: I am excited to see that AIHA and ASSE have pledged​ to work together to strengthen the broader OHS profession. I’ve been very involved in ASSE as its Mid-Michigan Chapter President where I am one of only a couple IHs. IH and safety have a great deal to teach one another, and this partnership will benefit us all. Together, we have some compelling stories to share with the rest of the world.

I ask other AIHA members to step up and share their own unique story. It is vitally important to share our body of knowledge and experience with other IH professionals at every career level, with students interested in entering the profession, with the workers and management we serve, and with the general public, who are too often completely unaware of what IH does and the important role the IH plays in our society.​

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