To give a little more background to the EHS as I understand it I feel explaining the general fields and how my field of Industrial Hygiene seems to be broken up.
Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) as I know it can generally be described as having four main parts.
The first, Environmental, seems pretty self explanatory. People in this area can be doing work anywhere from performing Phase I and II site assessments usually as part of a real estate transaction, to monitoring ground water quality to counting desert turtles in the middle of nowhere. Oddly enough, these folks seem the least disgruntled about their work and feign the most ignorance about other areas of the EHS world despite many areas of overlap.
Secondly there is Public Health. Oh Public Health. I was so put off from Industrial Hygiene and consulting after my internship that I decided I was going to go Public Health after graduating. After several seemingly positive interviews and no offerings I decided to kick it up a notch and go for the Registered Environmental Health Specialist/ Registered Sanitarian (REHS/RS) certification, the flag ship cert for Public Health people. For three weeks, six days a week, ten hours a day I studied the REHS/RS study guide handbook, the communicable disease handbook and several other source materials for the exam. None of the people I talked to thought I could do it in such a short time, but to my surprise I passed and to this day can put the letters REHS/RS after my name to make me look more official. Despite this achievement I never did make it to a second interview for a public health department no matter how positive the first interview seemed to go. It probably would have helped if I was a young attractive woman, but more on that in a later blog.
What can I say about public health work and workers? Well for one, I probably dodged a bullet for never getting a public health gig. While the work itself might seem moderately interesting for a year or so, it seems to get real boring real quick. Most public health folks I know seemed burnt out on shear boredom. The majority of work tends to revolve around performing health inspections of restaurants that will never fully comply and the occasional testing of public swimming pools. The few lucky ones can branch out into setting mosquito traps to monitor for West Nile virus and what not, and some get to perform inspections of septic system installations. Exciting. The jobs seem to be mainly low stress like a lot of government work, but the inability to rise through the ranks without clawing your way on top of a pile of coworkers probably doesn’t help the mood. In the end I get the impression that most public health workers are just bored and feel trapped by their careers. Yeah, probably good I didn’t end up there. But hey, at least then I might have time to do the things I actually want to do. None of this 80 hour work week bullshit. Also, public health people don’t feign ignorance about the other EHS fields, they seem generally unaware that anything outside their mind bending tedium actually can exist and are blown away with excitement about the prospect of collecting a lead-based paint chip sample.
Thirdly there are safety folks. You know, the guy who always reminds you to wear safety glasses, maybe forces you to an early morning meeting to talk about what you already know you’re going to be doing. It looks to me safety can generally go one or two ways. You end up in a cool company without interesting processes and a good safety culture where you actually try to implement meaningful programs, or you end up in a shit company that pretends they care about safety but really just want “get er dun!” The latter usually falls into you either being a safety cheerleader who puts up silly signs about how to pick up things safely, or you just spend your time filling out accident reports when someone does something stupid and the management blames you for someone doing something stupid that you’ve warned him against a million times before. Ah, fun times.
While there are a decent number of safety consultants out there, working in safety, specifically manufacturing (heaven forbid you end up doing safety work in construction) can offer the possibility of working for a normal company that to some degree respects the concept of not working you to death to get every cent of value out of you. This isn’t a given, but if you work for a good company, doing safety work can lead to you having some semblance of a normal life.
Lastly, there is Industrial Hygiene (IH). What the hell is Industrial Hygiene? No. No, it has nothing to do with dental hygiene and we utterly hate the comparison, and no, it has nothing to do with supplying mops to factories. We hate that last comparison slightly less than the dental hygiene one.
According to the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (yes that really exists, I didn’t make it up) Industrial Hygiene is: Industrial hygiene is the science of protecting and enhancing the health and safety of people at work and in their communities. Their words not mine.
So what does that mean? Well think of it this way. Safety folks are like those guys that took management courses in college teaching the finer arts of power point use. Industrial Hygienists are those guys that took three or more years of chemistry along with an array of other science courses. Naturally the art of keeping track of a few numbers and making fun power point presentations wins out over hard science and Safety folks will often get paid more only be second to getting laid off after the Industrial Hygienist cause shit, we can outsource that (more on that later).
IH is like the sciency technical side of safety. Where a safety guy is worried about knuckleheads falling off a latter they balanced on a wobbly table, an industrial hygienist is worried about the potentially toxic fumes coming from the vat of toxic methyl ethyl death next to the guy trying to balance the latter on a wobbly table. This concern is usually manifested with the industrial hygienist ceremonally placing a bulky vibrating air pump on the belt of the worker with a tube going to the workers shoulder where some other object is connected for the purpose of collecting a “sample” of what that worker breaths in during the day. You know, so we can know will kill him after he spent a day breathing it in.
I’m only being half serious here. IH involves more than just sucking air through a tube, though many days that seems like all it is. It involves recognizing hazards before hand, finding ways to mitigate the hazard and goes beyond just respirable hazards into noise, ergonomics and whatever else is hot in the last issue of the Synergist.
So there you have it, the four main areas as I seem them of the EHS world.
What about my little corner of the domain of delight and joy you ask? Well…
While very technical companies and bloated government institutions may have their own industrial hygienist, the work is simply too niche to require a full time industrial hygienist on staff for most companies. That means we get the worst evil the business world has ever spawned since boy bands, yes, consulting companies.
Now personally I actually disagree with much of Marx’s description of the capitalist system, I think it a bit over simplified and tilted towards seeing anyone successful in business as greedy and evil. But, if there is one part of our modern market economy that best models the father of communism’s predictions about the greedy capitalists enslaving the downtrodden worker, it would be consulting companies.
Consulting companies literally function on a direct correlation between profit and your misery. The more overworked you are, the more time of you limited life span you sacrifice to them, the more you put your marriage at risk, the more likely the company is to make money off of you. Oh they’ll tell you you’re wonderful, pretty and unique like a little snowflake, but once you step inside that door the lock turns and a whip snaps. And worse, once you go consulting, normal companies look at you like you’re some kind of non-committal rough rider going from job to job and they’re be more reluctant than ever to take you on board. Consulting is a highway or miserly with plenty of on-ramps and almost no off-ramps.
IH consulting companies basically prostitute out once fine respectable industrial hygienists to various companies and government institutions to turn a few quick IH tricks. Usually this is in some specific niche area they don’t have in house capabilities for, or its just work their normal employees don’t want to do. They have a consultant come in and either figure out their problem and send them a bill, or have them come in a do some of their dirty work and then send them a bill. Billing clients is the one core ethos that all consulting companies adhere to no matter what.
The problem is that consulting companies make their money in one of two ways. Time and materials projects where the more hours you work the more money they make, so there’s no justification to you cutting back your hours. The other is incredibly low balling a fixed fee contract so you will never have enough time to do a good job unless you come in on your own time to make sure it gets done right. It also doesn’t help that most of your clientele have no freaking clue what you do other than they’re being forced to have you do it, so they think anything higher than free is an unreasonable price.
I’m sure you can gather that I’ve spent most of working career as a consultant. Yes, I’m ashamed of it, and yes, I wish there was a way out, but that’s a story for another time.