Dr. Steven Lacey is a busy man. His day job is associate professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health Science at the Indiana University (IU) Fairbanks School of Public Health in Indianapolis.
He sat down with EHS Today to discuss the state of the practice of industrial hygiene, the importance of bringing students into the practice of industrial hygiene and of mentoring them so that they have long and success careers in the field, the challenges facing industrial hygienists and the greatest opportunities available to both the association and industrial hygienists.
Sandy Smith/EHS Today: Can you share some information about your background with our audience?
Steven Lacey (Lacey): I earned an MS in Industrial Hygiene from Texas A&M University, and a Ph.D. in the same from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Prior to Indianapolis, I was the director of the industrial hygiene program at the Illinois NIOSH ERC.
My current research focuses on medical laser health and safety. I am a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) and certified safety professional (CSP), and I currently serve as president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. Prior to becoming AIHA president, I served as a director and then treasurer.
I moved to Indianapolis nearly five years ago to help start the new Fairbanks SPH. A signature program under my leadership at IU is a new master of science in product stewardship – the first of its kind in the country.
What attracted you to the practice of IH and how long have you been in the profession?
Lacey: All through college in Texas (undergrad at Texas Tech), I thought I was going to be a physical therapist, until one day a mentor said, "Are you sure about this – what about occupational medicine, or industrial hygiene?"
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I went straight to a bookstore and read a two-page description of IH in an environmental careers book, and I was sold. What attracted me was the fact that IH is among the caring professions, that it uses math and science to solve problems and that it is our real shot at upstream prevention.
I'm 44 now and finished my PhD around 30, so I've been an IH for 15+ years, depending on when you start counting.
You mentioned a mentor suggested industrial hygiene to you as a profession. How important is the mentor role for new industrial hygienists?
Lacey: From my perspective from my day job as a university professor, I'm given the unique opportunity every day to mentor students. That may be just as important to the profession as what I do in the classroom.
AIHA has the Future Leaders Institute, which helps develop our emerging leaders. AIHA also has a formal mentoring program for young professionals to team them up with a senior member in the association. And we just had our annual Leadership Workshop, which offers our volunteer group leaders training and a peer network that they will have for the rest of their career.
After the workshop, I took an Uber to Reagan International Airport with five young professionals and we had a great conversation during that 30-minute ride. Sometimes, those kinds of [unplanned] opportunities are the best way to share experience and grow relationships that last a career.
Volunteering for the association and networking at conferences and events are fun ways to mentor students and offers opportunities to possibly place a great student in a great job.
What have been your greatest successes and greatest challenges in the past year as the president of AIHA?
Lacey: Part of my role as president has been to serve as a point of contact between AIHA and NIOSH, with the goal of aligning our missions where it makes sense. Early in that role, I learned about the work being done by Rebecca Guerin at NIOSH in Cincinnati around the health and safety of teenagers at work. We don't talk to kids about workplace health and safety, and it was one of the most thoughtful approaches to upstream prevention I had seen – and I knew our community would get behind the idea. It has become a nationwide outreach initiative.
Think about it: When was the first time your parents talked to you about not touching the stove because it was hot? When was the first time you talked to your kid about not running by the pool? Probably when kids are three years old, right?
When do we talk to our kids about the possibility of getting sick or killed at work and how to prevent it? Probably never. We don't talk to kids about this. And we have nearly 10,000 members who can connect with family members and neighbors and co-workers to share the message about health and safety at work with young people.
We need to start having the conversation earlier. When someone starts a job at age 25, that's not the first time he or she should be having this conversation.
[Another challenge] As I was preparing to assume the role of president, our long-standing executive director moved on from AIHA for a wonderful new opportunity and we were very happy for him.
Rather than being disappointed, I found it exciting because sometimes organizations can only make a step-change in the face of a major transition like this.
Past President Dan Anna did the heavy lifting with the search committee that found our new CEO, Larry Sloan.
With all of this, in many ways my priorities for this year as president immediately shifted; the most important thing I could do for the association would be to help on-board and orient Larry in his new position. And it has been great; Larry is awesome. From his credentials to his experience, he is a critical, systematic thinker, and perhaps most importantly, a real pleasure to be around. We are lucky to have him.
Can you tell us about the issues the association has focused on this year and if you anticipate that focus changing next year?
Lacey: AIHA's mission is to protect worker health, and we do this by making great industrial hygienists. The challenge is to create and deliver the education that IHs need to do their job not just today but in five and ten years from now. Working through our members and beyond, AIHA has identified seven strategic priority areas – existing and emerging priorities that impact practice – that we will continue to focus on. These are big issues, like: What does the changing landscape of workforce and workplace mean for IH practice? How will sensor technology and Big Data impact the way we do our work?
AIHA's incoming president, Deborah Nelson, will keep us on-task into the next year.
How is the health of the organization? The profession?
Lacey: AIHA is strong. We are financially solid, and we have wildly talented and dedicated staff and member volunteers. And the profession is strong; as a university professor, I see no lack of opportunity for young professionals entering the field.
At the macro level, the profession is not without its challenges, but we are in good company with nearly every STEM profession. Like many disciplines in the United States, we are facing both a retirement cliff and a STEM student shortage. It is up to our community to manage this. A lack of well-qualified occupational health professionals is a step in the wrong direction, and results in people getting sick or killed at work.
Ultimately, this challenge is an opportunity. Occupational and environmental health and safety is so fractionated – from how we organize our government, to our multiple professional associations that largely share the same objective – that I hope we see more meaningful collaborations among the related professional associations. The objective needs to be a sustainable pathway for supporting OHS professionals, and to ensure our collective voice is heard.
What are the trending issues that are most pressing for industrial hygienists in their practice?
Lacey: Sensor technology is well positioned to change how we approach occupational exposure assessment. IHs that historically were confident in five or six measurements of a workplace exposure will now be dealing with five or six measurements per second – this will force us to re-think how we approach compliance, risk assessment, refinement of control strategies and occupational epidemiology.
Consider advanced manufacturing – the future is happening right now… Just not everywhere at the same time or at the same pace. Technology continuously is being developed and migrating from other disciplines to our field and that's going to increase, not decrease. It is part of what is shaping our future, but not all of it.
I'm not an economist, but it seems to me the current trend of many world leaders rejecting globalism and, simultaneously, unprecedented global migration, makes it difficult to know where future manufacturing and service jobs will be found.
How will executive orders signed by President Donald Trump and legislation enacted by Congress potentially impact both the practice of industrial hygiene in particular and occupational safety, health and the environment, in general?
Lacey: When the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services rank in the top five or so [departments] for federal budget cuts, all EOHS professionals should be concerned. This is the most-clear effect. Further, its incongruous to say "Let's create more jobs" while planning to cut government workers.
Perhaps what is less clear is the impact on workers from budget cuts that are, at first glance, seemingly unrelated to worker health. It is important to remember that occupation is a social determinant of health. What you do for work determines where you get to live, what food you eat, what access to healthcare you have. Undermining social programs will further impact the health and wellbeing of workers – particularly the most vulnerable.
EOHS professionals help industry solve problems. As the Trump administration's approach to deregulation continues to emerge and take shape, we run the risk of EOHS professionals being devalued if there are fewer regulatory, compliance and health protection issues to navigate.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young practitioners?
Lacey: Be curious about the world. Know that technical proficiency is crucial, but without the ability to lead and communicate, you will never be a full actor. Read and travel widely.
Don't say, "It's hard to explain what IH is" or make tired jokes. Instead say, "I help keep people from getting sick, injured or killed at work."
Give your time to lead in your professional association. Give to your association's scholarship foundation.
Your work has serious responsibilities. Remember that every worker you encounter is someone's brother, daughter, father, mother or closest friend. If we don't fill the roles in health and safety leadership at companies, someone who is not trained and educated in workplace health protection is going to do it and more people will get sick or killed at work.