EHS Today: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you get involved with EHS, and why did you choose to study at the University of Michigan?
Mary Ellen L. Hicks: I became involved with the field of EHS during my undergraduate studies at Purdue University. I had a wonderful mentor who told me about the field of environmental and occupational health sciences, and I decided to change my major from pre-medicine and completed a double major in Occupational Health Sciences and Environmental Health Sciences. I chose to pursue my Master of Public Health degree in Industrial Hygiene at the University of Michigan because of their excellent Industrial Hygiene program. I felt that continuing my education and receiving an MPH degree would expand my knowledge of workplace hazards to better protect people in the workplace, and would give me more opportunities for growth in my future. The faculty and students at the University of Michigan are wonderful to work with, and I have loved my time here at Michigan.
EHS Today: You hold leadership positions in several organizations, the American Industrial Hygiene Association Student Local Section Council, the University of Michigan Industrial Hygiene Student Association and the University of Michigan Public Health Student Assembly. How have these leadership experiences informed your EHS studies, and what lessons have you taken from them?
Hicks: My leadership experiences throughout my education have all been such great experiences. My positions have helped me in EHS by allowing me to network with many influential people in our field, and gain experience being a part of and leading a team. Each position I have held in these various organizations has introduced me to such wonderful people that I will stay in contact with throughout my professional career. My leadership experiences have also taught me how important it is to delegate responsibilities based on individuals' strengths in order to accomplish greater goals.
EHS Today: You've worked and held internships at Alcoa. Can you describe some of your work there? What did you gain from this experience, and how has it influenced your future career trajectory or goals?
Hicks: I've been fortunate to have two internships with Alcoa at their plants in Lafayette, Ind., and at their plant in Cleveland. From working for Alcoa I was able to gain experience doing a wide variety of EHS activities. I conducted daily industrial hygiene sampling to monitor employees chemical and noise exposures, worked to eliminate ergonomic risks in both office and manufacturing settings, audited plant operations on heat stress and personal protective equipment, lead a custom ear plug trial, revised and reviewed safety and health programs to identify gaps and implement control methods, and administered respirator fit tests, along with many other activities. The experiences that I had at my internships with Alcoa confirmed that a career in EHS was truly the right fit for me. I loved the fast-paced nature of the work I got to do, and enjoyed all the workers I got to interact with on a daily basis through my industrial hygiene sampling and other activities. My internships with Alcoa also led me to a full-time job offer with the company. I will be the industrial hygienist at Alcoa's plant in Chandler, Ariz., starting in May 2012! My future professional goals include becoming an EHS manager, becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist and a Certified Safety Professional, as well as being active in EHS professional associations as a leader and as a mentor to younger professionals.
EHS Today: In your Future Leaders application, you described your interest in working as an EHS professional in the heavy industry sector. What attracts you to this particular work?
Hicks: I really enjoy the heavy industry sector's fast-paced nature, where every day is different with new challenges that arise. I want to be able to leave work every day knowing that I made a positive difference in protecting workers from harmful exposures while at their job.
EHS Today: In your application, you also stressed the importance of conveying the value of EHS programs to company management. Why is this so key to an EHS program, and how do you think this could be best accomplished? What efforts have you made in your work, studies or internships to promote the value of EHS to management?
Hicks: I feel that EHS needs to be a core value for company management so that worker health and safety and the environment is never compromised. The value of EHS needs to be realized by all levels of personnel at a facility, from management and contractors to workers on the production line. Management needs to show through their actions that activities that compromise workers health and safety or the environment will not be accepted. In my internships, I've been fortunate to work for companies that have EHS as a core principle. However, it is always an ongoing process, where EHS principles need to continually be reviewed with all levels of personnel to ensure no one is getting complacent. In graduate school I've taken EHS management courses and have learned the importance of good management for success in achieving EHS goals. Throughout my internships, I've led safety talks and industrial hygiene presentations to get company management and production workers thinking about EHS principles throughout their workdays.
EHS Today: You took a 40-hour HAZWOPER course last year and became a certified hazmat technician. Can you describe one of the mock scenarios you participated in during this training? What were some of the most useful lessons you learned?
Hicks: One of the mock scenarios that I participated in was trying to identify unlabeled hazardous material drums found in the basement of an old abandoned house that had been used as a meth lab, all while having to wear Level A suits and respirators. One of the most useful lessons I learned was how important establishing a good line of communication is whenever you perform any hazmat work. Communicating while wearing a respirator is next to impossible, and without clear communication methods established within your team before setting out to accomplish your goal, it is very hard to be successful. I also learned first hand how uncomfortable it can be to wear PPE for long periods of time, and why PPE should be used as a last resort when engineering controls are not feasible.
EHS Today: What advice can you offer other students who may be interested in pursuing a career in EHS?
Hicks: The best piece of advice I would offer to other students interested in EHS is to get hands-on experience in the field to see what a "normal" day for an EHS professional might entail. For me, my internships gave me very practical hands-on experience and gave invaluable insight into what a future career in EHS would potentially be like. I would also encourage students interested in pursuing a career in EHS to network with EHS professionals as much as possible. Joining professional associations, such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association, will allow students to talk to people in the field about their experiences and to learn from those professionals.
EHS Today: Finally, what do you enjoy doing when you're not at work or school? Can you share one fun fact about yourself that is unrelated to EHS?
Hicks: When I'm not at work or at school I love reading, hiking, and spending time with friends and family. One fun fact about me is that I've run two marathons!
EHS Today: Thanks for participating in this Q&A, Mary Ellen. The EHS world can expect great things from you in the future.
For more information about the Future Leaders in EHS program, visit the Future Leaders page or read the December 2011 feature about this year’s winners. And stay tuned for a future Q&A with this year’s Future Leader in EHS, Jeffrey R. Walls.