Safety professionals: On the outer fringe or the leading edge?

A guest post by Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental, executive director of the National Registry of Certified Chemists, and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety. Cross-posted at The Safety Zone.

At the ACS meeting in Dallas this week, it was clear that the safety community continues to try to solidify its place in the chemical enterprise. Although technical programming in our field was a little light for this meeting, there were some excellent presentations.

The seemingly routine “Ask Doctor Safety” session held at every meeting suddenly attracted a new audience of young women chemists interested in reproductive health. Neal Langerman of Advanced Chemical Safety and Harry Elston of Midwest Chemical Safety surely gave them a newfound respect for the chemicals they might handle.

In the Safety eLearning symposium, Janette de la Rosa Ducut of the University of California, Riverside, and Thor Benzing of the UC Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources opened eyes with an arresting presentation. There were some new faces in the crowd at that session, too. Nevertheless, getting thirty or so people in attendance when other programs are getting hundreds can be a little discouraging.

Where exactly do safety professionals and their work fit in the chemistry community? Are we on the fringe or at the leading edge? We don’t make a product. We are permitted to “train,” but generally not to “teach.” We can do research, but it’s far more likely to be data inquiry than in the laboratory. The environmental health and safety field encompasses quite a few CHAS, DCT, CINF, ENVR, SCHB, and CHAL professionals, so it does reach across nearly every other discipline within the chemical enterprise. Our job, every day, is to help keep people safe. But it seems that we still don’t get the respect that we’ve earned.

We’re making progress. Every ACS president since at least Ned Heindel has made chemical health and safety at least a small part of their presidential years. Each has contributed a little more to health and safety awareness. Now, Diane Schmidt, the immediate past-chair of the Division of Chemical Health & Safety, is in the first of her three presidential succession years. We know that she has been a tireless worker for chemical safety. Hopefully her term as president will help to further raise the profile of the essential role of safety in the chemical enterprise.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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