Young Leaders in Industrial Hygiene: With the Graying of the Industrial Hygiene Profession, a New Generation of Leaders Is Being Groomed by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Do These Young Professionals See a Field in Decline or a Bright Future?

By Minter, Stephen G. | Occupational Hazards, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Young Leaders in Industrial Hygiene: With the Graying of the Industrial Hygiene Profession, a New Generation of Leaders Is Being Groomed by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Do These Young Professionals See a Field in Decline or a Bright Future?


Minter, Stephen G., Occupational Hazards


When industrial hygienists look around the conference rooms at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition later this month in Anaheim, Calif., one thing they may notice is a lot of gray hair. The passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 prompted rapid growth in the industrial hygiene profession, but those baby boomers now see retirement looming. There is concern about the aging of the American Industrial Hygiene Association's (AIHA) ranks: Only 24.7 percent of members are under the age of 40, according to a 2003 survey.

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AIHA officials have been keenly aware of the demographics in their organization and have undertaken various efforts to attract young people to the profession. AIHA also is working to develop the next generation of leaders to replace those 50-something hygienists who will be exiting the field in a few years and to bring a fresh perspective to the profession.

In September, AIHA is convening a Future Leaders Institute in Chicago to hone the interpersonal and organizational skills of 30 to 35 practitioners with 15 or less years in the profession. In promoting the event, AIHA stated that career success means "strong leadership skills," skills needed to "enhance communication with professionals who are not in the industrial hygiene industry" and to be able to "articulate the value of the industry and effectively explain contributions made by industrial hygienists to the workplace."

We interviewed four of AIHA's under-40 leaders to find out why they entered the field, what issues they are facing and how they view their profession.

DIVERSITY A BENEFIT

Jennifer Sahmel never took a science class when she was an international studies major at the University of California-Berkeley. But when she started examining the integration of eastern and western Europe. environmental issues drew her attention. She became so interested in the topic that she started taking science classes at night after graduation. That led her to earn a masters degree in industrial hygiene from the University of Maryland. Her work history has ranged from a pesticide manufacturing plant to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. Today, she is occupational health manager for the National Park Service's Intermountain Region, a vast amount of real estate encompassing 89 park units and 5,500 employees plus many volunteers.

Like many older industrial hygienists, Sahmel was drawn to the mix of technical and people work that the field often calls for. While many industrial hygienists have an undergraduate degree in science, she has found her liberal arts background an advantage. "I think it's a very strong combination to be able to understand chemistry and some of the engineering aspects of the field, but also be able to write good, coherent reports and interact well with people. There is so much selling of industrial hygiene and environmental health and safety that goes on. A lot of people are not necessarily prepared for, or recognize the need for, this. It has been very beneficial for me."

If the park service sounds like idyllic work, Sahmel cautions that park personnel perform a variety of "serious, difficult" tasks such as trail construction and maintenance. During a given month, she spends a week visiting parks and working with local officials to help them with safety management issues. Much of her time is spent in the office writing reports, fielding questions, conducting conference calls and developing training programs and specific safety programs. Sahmel said she likes the direct contact with field employees and that "no two days are alike."

Ryan Langton also recognizes the need to have strong people skills. As the safety and health manager for the southeast division of Hanson Aggregates North America, which produces aggregates, asphalt, ready-mixed concrete and cement, he says his job requires sound technical knowledge, but also the ability to communicate with the various levels of the organization, from production workers in the quarries to top management. …

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