I will be signing off shortly as I prepare for the Mother of all Vacations a.k.a. retirement after 44 years of involvement in chemical health and safety.
I leave with a smile on my face, having completed my career bucket list. I was hired by McGill University nearly 35 years ago when there was no EHS department to speak of. Basically I was it. The university gave me a mandate to tackle lab safety but when I started nobody could tell me where the labs were. It took me two years, with the help of a student, to figure that out. There were over 700.
Fast forward to 2019 and I not only know where the labs (now numbered at over 800) are, I can also tell you:
- who works there
- what training they received
- their chemical inventory (+ all the SDS that go with them)
- their inventory of nuclear substances
- who has a biohazards permit, what microorganisms they work with, the containment level designation
- where all the Class 3b and 4 lasers are
- how much hazardous waste they generate
- when they were last inspected, how they did, and the status of corrective measures
- and more…
I can also tell you where all of our asbestos is.
Safety Culture has come a long way.
When I first began, workers questioned your masculinity if you wore a mask when working around asbestos.
Fast forward to 2019 and they would consider you nuts if you didn’t protect yourself…
When I first put together lab safety training, participation was low, with graduate students often showing up for their training only when they had completed their research and were in the process of writing their theses!
Fast forward to 2019 and the safety culture is such that Profs won’t let their students start work without taking the mandatory training and we are now up to over 6000 training registrations per year. It’s part of the drill and nobody questions it.
Over the years, both here at McGill and at Concordia where I worked before, I built up a career dealing with hazardous messes – cleaning up abandoned labs, cleaning up a 75 year old chemical stockroom (where I found some mustard gas), excavating buried chemicals, decontaminating biohazards spills, removing underground oil tanks and contaminated soil, decommissioning a 500 ton synchrocyclotron, a garbage truck full of acid-saturated paper giving off an orange cloud (of NOx Gases) , the discovery of 4 containers of homemade TNT (the only time I called the bomb squad) , a few anthrax scares, lots of dried out picric acid, old ethers, mold, and lots and lots of spills.
When I started out, I was a one-man hazmat team (what’s a buddy??).
Fast forward to 2019 and I have a well-trained hazmat team, equipped with a hazmat trailer, and all the gear imaginable to deal with spills.
I put together a lecture describing this aspect of my career, which I have entitled “My Life as a Decon Artist”, where I share some of my hazmat war stories. The best news is that all these decon stories are old, due to a transformation in safety culture over the years. Nowadays we hardly ever come across unidentified materials, thanks to the right-to-know legislation, training, inspection, etc. This makes life a whole lot easier for our hazardous waste management team.
Other changes in our safety culture include:
- a commitment towards due diligence on the part of senior administration. They have become downright risk averse.
- better engineering and design of our labs, and full involvement of EHS in the design processes
- an internal responsibility system, with oversight and reporting becoming part of the institutional process
- younger professors who are more willing to accept health and safety as a part of doing business
I mentioned that when I started I was alone. Fast forward to 2019 and I have a team of 20 who possess all the subject matter expertise that used to fall on me. It’s time for me to step aside and let them do their thing.
In closing I would like to share with you the 2 most important lessons I learned in my career.
Lesson #1: When it comes to communicating risk it doesn’t matter how much you know, how smart you are, how much experience you have, how many degrees you have or what school you went to. It doesn’t even matter if you are right. The only thing that matters is whether the audience trusts you. My job is a whole lot easier after investing decades building relationships and developing the trust factor within my institution. People now seek out my advice and are happy to run with it, unlike when I was the new kid on the block and every safety intervention seemed like a thesis defense where I had to back up everything I said with at least 20 references.
Lesson #2. The body of knowledge behind health and safety is far too great for any one person to know everything – build your network, seek out the advice of experts, keep studying, align yourself with great mentors, and ask lot of questions. That has gotten a lot easier nowadays with the internet and listservs like this one that enable us to reach out to colleagues with the greatest of ease.
Which leads me to express my thanks to all you colleagues for sharing your valuable insight, expertise and experience. You are awesome.
And a special shout-out to Ralph for being the keeper of this and previously the SAFETY List (and those classic John Milligan posts). You are a safety Hall-of-Famer for all you have done for the profession and I would not be where I am now without you.
Wayne Wood | Director, Environmental Health and Safety – Directeur, Sante´, securite´ et environnement| McGill University | 3610 rue McTavish Street, 4th floor | Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3A 1Y2 | Tel: (514) 398-2391