The Accidental Safety Pro: #1

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#1: They’re gonna give me a badge and a beige Ford Taurus?

May 16, 2018 | 59 minutes 49 seconds

True to the show, podcast host and Chief Safety Officer Jill James retraces her career-long journey in safety. Jill tells the story of how her professional aspirations changed in college, the internship that landed her a job as an OSHA investigator, and describes her mentors along the way. And if you’ve ever wondered what it was like to be a woman in the safety field circa 1990, this is the brief, often funny, oral history you’ve been searching for. Also, cleaning up a mercury spill and what that’s like—bonus!

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Barrett: Hello there, and welcome to Episode One of the Accidental Safety Professional, hosted by Jill James, and brought to you by Vivid Learning Systems. My name’s Barrett, and to kick off our brand new safety podcast series, I’m introducing and interviewing one of my all-time favorite people, series host Jill James, Vivid’s chief safety office.

So Jill, welcome to your show.

Jill: Thanks Barrett. Nice to be here today.

Barrett: Jill, why a safety podcast?

Jill: Well, I was talking with some other safety professional contacts of mine, in fact, our focus group here at Vivid, and they were talking about how they don’t often get to talk with other people in our field. Oftentimes people who are in this field of practice are solo operators, they’re the only people at their company that are doing that work. They don’t have a lot of opportunities to connect with other safety and health professionals, except maybe at a conference every once in a while, where you’re going to a lot of conference activities. But you don’t have a lot opportunity to have meaningful conversations with other people who do the work that you do.

So our focus group suggested it would be really nice to have some kind of venue where we can connect with one another, or at least hear one another’s stories, on how we go about doing our work, or what drives us to do our work, or how we got into it. So, one of the people in our focus group suggested a podcast. He had mentioned that he listens to podcasts often, during his commute to work, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just connect with other safety professionals and hear their story, in podcast form.”

So here we are, with our first episode of The Accidental Safety Professional.

Barrett: Yes, here we are. I love the idea, having interacted and talked to some of the same folks. I know that there is a need out there, or a vacuum I should say, of content, at a podcast level for safety professionals. What are there two, three, zero? Is this the first?

Jill: There’s a couple of safety podcasts out there, based on my research, but nothing that sounds like it’s just safety professionals talking with one another about their work.

Barrett: I love that. Okay. Between two ferns, certified safety professionals and professional types of the like.

So, I wanted to ask you to explain the concept of the show, starting with the title. You want to talk to safety professionals, connect folks, and have some collegiality in a very relaxed manner. But where did you get Accidental Safety Professional? Where does the title come from, and maybe you could explain the significance for the audience?

Jill: Right. Whenever I meet someone in the field of workplace safety and health, one of my leading questions that I ask is, “How did you come to this work? How did it come to you?” I don’t know that I’ve ever met a person, in the 23 years I’ve doing this work who, as a little kid, knew they wanted to be a safety and healthy professional, wanted to study the OSHA regulations, or even when they got to college, knew that that was a field that they wanted to go into. Or maybe they didn’t go to college for it, and it came to them another way.

So everybody has this story about how they came into safety and health, essentially accidentally. It wasn’t anything they had ever considered, and through some series of events, there they are, and there they landed in this work. So it’s a question I love to ask people, and that’s where the name came from. People came into the field accidentally, and it’s the question that we’ll always be asking in this entire podcast series, I think, we’ll be leading with that one.

Barrett: Do you feel like that is a phenomenon unique to safety? So, where safety professionals in the safety field say, someone is less likely to accidentally become a doctor or an attorney.

Jill: Right? So you think about when you ask people in other career paths, “When did you know you were going to become a teacher?” “I’ve known since I was a little kid that I wanted to be a teacher, and I remember getting all my neighborhood friends together, and I was teaching them.” You know, you don’t hear that about safety people. Like, “I got all my friends together and I was teaching them, you know, how to avoid electrical hazards or something.” You know, it just didn’t happen.

Barrett: No one says that. And I guess maybe it’s the low publicity level of safety professionals. There aren’t a lot of safety heroes for kids to look up to growing up. I can only think of, from my history, Captain Planet being anything near the safety field. So, they just don’t aspire to that. It’s not in popular media, they’re not watching safety professionals on a reality show, from the time they’re young. Or vis a vis like a football player, or a movie start.

There are no safety professional tabloids, which maybe I something that we can consider. Avoid to fill. Maybe we found avoid to fill here.

Jill: I guess when I think about superhero, safety types, how would we have that right? The only time that safety seems to make the proverbial news, whether it’s local, or in your company, or nationally, is when something’s gone sideways. So it’s not something that you aspire to. You’re asking questions about safety professionals, but it’s only in times of need. There’s one story that gives me heart, that one time I can think of that safety made headlines, right? 

It’s Captain Sully, when he landed the plane successfully in the Hudson. And it became a move. And it became a book. And he was lauded for his work in perfectly executing his safety skills. And, of course, his flying skills. I always think about, when you’re gonna hold up a successful safety story, where the whole thing is kind of built around safety, that’s the one that comes to mind for me. So Sully would be my safety hero.

Barrett: He’s the new poster child for work and safety professionals, even though he’s a pilot, right?

Barrett: Yeah, but that’s the nearest approximation I guess. Okay. Given the concept that you’ve explained, I have to ask you. Just tell me about your own path to safety.

Jill: Sure. The way that I accidentally came into it. Well, it started when I was in undergraduate school. My undergrad degree is in community health education. I was getting near the end of my degree, and had taken all my different, lots of different health classes, and epidemiology classes, and one of the classes I had taken was safety. But I still don’t even remember what the content was. 

I needed to find an internship in order to complete my degree. And, so, I was looking through this list of internships for community health education, and it was different public health facilities, or American Heart, or Red Cross, American Lung Association, that kind of thing. On the very, very bottom of the list, it said safety. Department of Transportation. I thought, “Awesome. That’s sounds so boring. Nobody else is going to want this particular internship, and I will be able to get this one.” Because it was a really competitive market at that time for internships.

So, I applied for the internship with the Department of Transportation, and I interviewed with someone, who is a district supervisor, for a district office, for the DoT and I got that internship. Once I got there, I started to learn about workplace safety. Specific to the Department of Transportation at that time, and I kind of, “Well, this isn’t too bad.” I specifically, remembering next then meeting all of the safety directors for the state where I was working. So all these different safety directors came together, and I was like a 20, maybe one, 22 year old punk, and they would say, “Hey kid. This safety gig, it’s not such a bad job. You should go to the university and get your masters degree in safety. Then you can get a good job like we have. It will pay off your student loans.” I thought, “Well, I don’t really have another plan, maybe that’s a good idea. This safety thing doesn’t seem, it’s not too boring. I guess, I can see it can make a difference in the world.”

And so I applied for graduate school, and to into the program that all those safety directors recommended, and found myself earning my Master’s degree in Industrial Safety. My family, at the time, kept asking me, “Well, what kind of job are you gonna be able to get?” I was the first person in my family to ever go to college, and so everybody was very job-focused, and said, “What are you going to be able to do?” You know, “I don’t know. I suppose I could work for OSHA, or something.” 

I was learning a lot about the OSHA regulations and kind of getting into the study, and I was nearing the end of my graduate work and needed to find another internship. And, at that time, I was offered a long-term internship, for six months with money, and that was also an unheard thing, with the Department of Military Affairs. I was working at a military installation, as a civilian, in an environmental health and safety department.

While I was there, and doing that work, my old mentor from the Department of Transportation contacted me, and he said, “Hey kid. OSHA is hiring. You should apply.” And so I did that, and listened to him, and interviewed for that job, and landed my first professional job in safety, with OSHA. I was an investigator with OSHA inspecting general industry and construction sites, for the next 12 years. 

So, that’s how I accidentally go into it, basically by listening to the mentors that were taking me by the hand and leading me along the path.

Barrett: So, when you were in college, and you were studying public health, and that was your focus, what kind of future did you envision?

Jill: I loved the education piece of public health. I guess I imagined myself just working on educating people on how to stay healthy. But, at the time, specifically, now we’re talking the late 80’s, early 90’s, now I’ve aged myself. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic. At that time there was a lot of education on how to prevent the transmission of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. That’s actually what I talked about, and taught, on my campus at college. I imagined myself doing some advocacy work to interrupt bad health choices, or educate on people on how to avoid diabetes, things like that. I just imagined myself doing a lot of education in my career, but I didn’t know exactly where it would go. But I knew I felt strongly about advocating for people, particularly when I was doing that work on HIV and AIDS, back in the early 90’s.

Barrett: Have you enjoyed that educational aspect of public health, and getting in front of groups and presenting, that’s something that you were, not only comfortable with, but hoping to pursue professionally? That kind of travel around, you’ve the added good vibes of tackling important public health issues that are fascinating, and genuinely making a difference. Was that kind of your mentality there?

Jill: You know, I guess it was. I really hadn’t thought about that piece before, that I really jumped in with both feet, and doing education without having a big background in public speaking or anything. I think at that time, you think about a young college person talking about making safe sex choices, and how intimidating that might be for some people. I don’t ever remember feeling intimidated about talking about the subject, because I felt so strongly about getting the information in the hands of the people that needed it, to be able to protect themselves. That, even as a young 20-year-old, I didn’t think that it was weird that I was talking about it, or that I was getting in front of large groups, or going into dormitories to talk to students. I guess I’ve never really reflected back and thought about how maybe unusual that situation was. But I didn’t have any qualms about doing it.

So, when I got the interview with the OSHA people, and I was sitting across the table as a young, 20-some-year-old, just out of graduate school, with never having had a professional job before. And, the people who were interviewing me, you know, they were all older men. I remember the guy, who would become my boss, Paul, he looked over the top of his glasses at me, and he said, “Kid.” Everybody called me kid then. He said, “How are you going to be able to carry a badge, walk into a company without giving them any notice, talk to the president or CEO of a company, tell them you’re going to fine them. How are you going to do that without being eaten alive?”

I remember sitting back in my chair from the interview table, and I said, “Well, I’ve been doing speaking, and education, on safe sex practices for the last couple of years on my college campus. And I guess if I can talk about sex out loud to any audience, I guess I can talk to a company about fines.” And I think I shocked them so much by the fact that I mentioned all those topics in a job interview, it just set them back and I got the job somehow.

Barrett: That’s a great first impression to make.

Barrett: It seems like you had this combination of bold certainty, some of it just a credit to you. When you’re a younger student, or young person, and you’re doing some work that feels important to you, you don’t necessarily consider how speech, or certain information, may land with ears that are of a certain age, perhaps, or experience level.

Jill: Exactly. The uncertainty or certainty of youth was definitely, in the case, turned out to be in my favor.

Barrett: So, tell me about the folks that interviewed you, your first day on the job. What was it like to earn that opportunity, and then go home and explain what you were doing to your folks, and your family?

Jill: I don’t really remember my first day on the job very much. But, what I do remember, is getting the offer letter in the mail. Like snail mail offer later. I was living at my parent’s house at the time, and I went to the mailbox and I see this letter that came from the government, and we had a really long driveway. I had that letter in my hand, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Did I get this job? Didn’t I get this job? Is this an offer letter? What is this?” I’m walking slowly up the driveway, and I’m opening the letter, and I see that it’s an offer letter. And I see the amount of money that I’ve been offered which, in retrospect, was a pretty small amount.

But, what struck me, was that it was more than my father had been making at his factory job, that he had been at for over 20 years. And I knew that that was a really big deal. I know that I had this huge responsibility, that I now, as some young person out of college, had earned an opportunity to serve in a way that took my dad more than 20 years to even get close to. I just really remember feeling the gravity of that responsibility and thinking, “Wow. What did I just do? Stuff’s gonna get serious now. They’re gonna give me a badge, they’re giving me money, I’ve got all these responsibilities. This is a big deal. It’s a really big deal.”

Barrett: Yeah, today they call that adulting.

Barrett: And that experience is really unique. You will get … I’m trying to think of some equivalent for today’s youth. You will get a letter, in the mail, from a college, saying you’re accepted or you weren’t accepted. But, before that, you’re gonna get an email most likely any more. You just don’t get job offer letters, I think. It’s the idea that you’re gonna figure that information out, or it’s going to come to you via mail, is completely foreign to me. So, how cool is that to kind of have that moment in your hand, and it’s got a dollar figure attached to it?

Jill: Yeah. It was a big deal. Adulting, that’s a very good way to put it, and maybe that’s when my adulting started.

Jill: Yeah, then probably next was when I actually got there, and the training, when you start with OSHA, at least for me and the agency that I was working at, I was working for a state OSHA agency. It was six months of training, so it was six months, at the office, in the main headquarters office, where I was just learning about the processes. All the government forms, all the processes, all the criteria for writing a report, what made a report solid, and something that could be upheld legally, and then all of these interpretations, and all of these directives, and if you’re in this situations, or if you’re in that situation. Literally volumes and volumes of these things we go over, for the first three months.

Then the next three months was in the field with mentors. I was assigned three particular mentors, Richard, Dale, and Bob. The would take me for two weeks at a time. I would go in the field and do investigations with them, where I was essentially shadowing them, then they’d give me little job responsibilities along the way. For the next three months I rotated between those three men, who had all been in their jobs for a very long time, all former military guys, all had their unique personalities and perspectives, and approaches. I looked at them like some kind of buffet. I thought, “Well, I’m gonna pick what I really like from each of these and adopt it into my own style.” Because I had no style at that point. I looked at what I liked from each of them, and tried to come up with who am I gonna be in this job? How am I gonna do it? They were really gracious to me, and really took me under their wing, and were fantastic mentors.

Barrett: I forgot to ask earlier, but was there a scenario where, jumping ahead a little bit, you ended up at your father’s work environment for an audit, or an inspection, or any sort of safety-related call, in your official capacity?

Jill: No, I didn’t. Actually, when I was in that training those first three months, they really talked about conflicts of interest. So, investigating your own family’s business would have been a conflict of interest. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. For example, after I had gotten job, my future fiance and I were living in this community, and he had gotten a job at a fiberglass manufacturing company. He was an accountant, so he was the company’s controller. And that company name ended up on my inspection list. We got the names of the company’s to inspect, and I saw that on there and I thought, “Whoa. I can’t tell him about it, and I can’t do the inspection.”

I called my former mentor, or my continued mentor, Richard, at the time, he was the closest person to me geographically, and I said, “Richard his company name came up for inspection. I can’t do it. Will you do it?” He said, “Yes, of course. I’ll come there, and I’ll come on whatever date.” He and I set up a date, and I did not tell my fiance, because I wanted him to be as surprised as the company, and that would have not been appropriate for me to do. You never tipped off anybody where you were going. Richard showed up to do the inspection, and my fiance came home work and he’s like, “So. We got inspected today.” I’m like, “Yeah. I know that was gonna happen. But I couldn’t tell you.”

My dad’s factory wasn’t in my inspection territory, and if it was ever inspected it wasn’t by me, and could not have been.

Barrett: You would have referred it out?

Barrett: We’ve got Bob, Richard, and Dale, your three mentors, all male, all former military. I wanted to ask you, what was the environment like with Minnesota State OSHA at that time, for a female?

Jill: Yeah. There were very few of us. Most of the women that worked for the agency worked in administrative roles. There were just a couple of us who were women in the field, investigators. I was assigned to a geographically rural area, so my first inspection area was 10 counties along the Canadian and Dakota borders, and the office that I report to had, I’m remembering, two women. One was a woman who was a safety investigator, who came up through the ranks, who had started an administrative assistant and had been there for 20 years, and she became an investigator. The other one was an industrial hygienist, who was educationally trained to be an industrial hygienist. Then there was me. So, in that particular area, and a that time, there were three of us. The headquarters maybe had two more that I can think of.

In terms of female mentors, and being with other women, there weren’t a lot of us. That was a whole different experience. My mentor, Richard, he hadn’t worked with women in the field before, so he never knew how to refer to me. And he was super proper, so proper he was the guy like I’m sure he ironed his blue jeans. Everything was proper with Richard. So he didn’t know how to address me, so sometimes he’d call me guy. ‘Cause just didn’t know. He wasn’t sure. “Should I call her miss.” You know, his language was always proper, and so sometimes he’d be like, “Hey guy.” We ended up becoming very close friends, but he really did not know what to do with me at first.

Barrett: You had to relocate to a different part of the state to work this beat regionally, right?

Barrett: You had to go find a place, get settled, bring your fiance along?

Jill: Yeah, I was given a geographic territory, and said, you know, live somewhere in that area, and here’s a state vehicle. Oh, and by the way, we’re giving you the crappiest one in the fleet, that we need the miles on, so that we can get this vehicle rolled over. It let me sit in a rural area, with its alternator out twice.

Barrett: Do you remember the make and model?

Jill: Oh, I remember it was beige. Gosh. I think it was a Ford, it wasn’t a Taurus, it was something worse than that. I don’t remember exactly right now.

Barrett: Beige Ford Taurus. Yeah, that sounds like a government ride circa 1990. Was it the station wagon model? That’s really the only question I have in my mind.

Jill: No, it was a four-door model, and when it left me sitting on the side of the road, I called Richard. Again, he was the closest person to me, about three hours away, and I’m, “Richard, I’m stranded on the side of the road.” I had my bag phone, you know, with its big antenna. I’m like, “Somebody has to come and get me.” So he did.

Barrett: I’ve heard you tell stories about these mentors you had, these male mentors early on in your career. You always have a fond recollection to share, a different or a different story, or some tip you picked up that was just unique to one of those individuals. I’ve yet to hear any stories about those female relationships, with the industrial hygienist, you mentioned working with, and the other gal who’d come up through the ranks of state run OSHA. I’m just wondering about, would their path to safety was different than yours. What were the bonding points? What were those experiences, especially early on, since you’re brand new there.

Jill: Right. There really weren’t very many, particularly because we didn’t often get assigned to work with one another, just by way of geographics. Early on I didn’t have a lot of contact with the other women in the agency. The one who came up through the ranks eventually became the last supervisor that I worked under, before I left the agency. We just had very, very different work approaches, so I wouldn’t call a lot of bonding there. 

But I do, specifically, remember two women, one was the person who was … This is the world of OSHA. Called the fat cat clerk. Now, that might sound like kind of a naughty term, but it stands for Fatality and Catastrophe clerk. Her job was to be the intake person every time there was a fatality or catastrophe. Imagine having that job. Every phone call that came in, where someone was absolutely at their wits end because someone had just died, or been seriously injured, she would take those calls. And she would gather all the information that was needed, to be able to assign an investigator to whatever the situation was. She used to deescalate a lot of people at their worst moments, gather the information that was needed so an investigator could go and do the work. 

She’s just a fantastic person. Still is a friend of mine. She eventually became an investigator herself and, when I got pregnant, which was also something that was really rare, my boss at the time, the guy who looked over his glasses and looked at me, “How are you gonna handle this job, kid?” When I got pregnant and told him I was gonna have a baby, he about freaked out. He had never supervised anyone who had ever been pregnant before, as an investigator.

Barrett: He just had a processing error, blew a circuit upstairs I imagine.

Jill: He did. He was like, “Oh my gosh. How is this gonna work? What are you gonna do? Are you gonna stay in the field?” He had no idea. I’m like, “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out with you in HR, and we’ll make it work. Calm down Paul, it will be okay.”

Barrett: I’m shocked that he didn’t have a paid family leave policy just in his back pocket, ready to hand over to you. “Here’s your six months. We’ll see you. It’s gonna be great. We’re gonna job share when you return.”

Jill: Yeah, none of that. None of that happened.

Jill: My friend Lisa, the fatality and catastrophe clerk, when I got pregnant she was so awesome. She sent me gifts, this big box of presents for my baby, that had every holiday. She had figured out how old he would be, and bought all these little clothes accordingly. So he had his first Hallowe’en costume, and his first thing with a shamrock on it, or something for Christmas holidays, and she had all these things in a box for me, for my son. As he grew up, his first year, all of these clothes kind of all [titraded inaudible 00:27:50] out by what size she thought he would be. I remember that from her. 

Then the other woman, who came and was hired after I was, a number of years later someone that I ended up mentoring in the field, just like Richard, Dale, and Bob had done for me. Her name was Cheryl, and she continues to work in safety as well, not with OSHA any more. I remember thinking, “Wow, now I’m the mentor. How does this work?” It felt like a huge responsibility. She and I just had really different, and interesting, conversations compared to the guys that I was working with. They were all kind of about the business, and Cheryl and I were talking about life in general, and the work itself, then how do we approach this as women. Because it is a different approach when you’re a woman in the field. 

Our conversations were different, with the regard of when you’re being threatened, what do you do when you’re a female? She and I, together, had been co-threatened by a company that I took her on an inspection to shadow me. The employer in that company tried to use his two Doberman’s to intimidate us. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny, tiny town, with this guy who doesn’t like the government, doesn’t want anybody telling what to do, and decides to hold two Doberman’s at bay, barking at us as an intimidator, to see if we would go away. 

So you have to make a decision in that time, you know, are we gonna go forward, are we gonna go away, are we going to leave and go get a search warrant, and have the local sheriff execute it with us? What are we going to do? We persisted calmly, and he kept the dogs on the leash, and we continued with our inspection. 

Barrett: Wow. That’s a fun call.

Barrett: I wanted to ask you to continue to take us down your path in safety. Take from OSHA to your next job, and how did your career progress? I know you were with OSHA for State of Minnesota, as a Safety Investigator, for a decade?

Barrett: Almost 12 years. At that point why did you leave that job?

Jill: Yeah, right? Good question. With government work, every time there’s an administration change, there’s leadership change. I was working for the Department of Labor and Industry, so there’s commissioner’s that work at the governor’s pleasure, and sometimes those same commissioners stay, sometimes they don’t. Each governor sets their own parameters, that was how it worked in my state anyway, because it was a state-run agency. I think I worked under three different governors, and you never knew what was gonna happen after the election. Would you have the same commissioner? Would it be somebody else? What would be the mission of this new governor? What would they want to happen? 

The last governor that I worked under really changed the way regulatory agencies operated at that time in my state. Whether it was OSHA or a different regulatory agency. It became really about how many numbers that look really good, can be put on a spreadsheet? How can we talk about those numbers in a favorable light? So, rather than quality of work, it became quantity of work. I always had … There were always goals. Do this many inspections in a year, that’s your goal. But the goal got increased, and the speed with which you needed to get them done increased, but the quality of the work didn’t matter. You were rewarded if you could do more in a short period of time, and it didn’t matter how many citations you wrote. Number of citations doesn’t mean that you’re good, bad, or otherwise, but it might be an indicator that you did a thorough job.

If you’re at a huge factory, maybe it would take you two days, maybe it would take you eight hours, maybe it would take you a week, depending on how many locations they had. When it really became, get it done faster, faster, faster, faster, we don’t care if you cite one thing, just do something and get out, so we can put some numbers neatly on a spreadsheet, I knew that it was time for me to go. 

Around that time I had reached my top of the pay scale too, so it’s like, “What am I doing here? Let’s look for something else.” I looked around the community where I was living at the time, and looked out over all the employers in the area, and I thought, “Gosh, who would I want to work for? I think maybe I want to work for a large employer. Who are the largest employers in the community? Well, there’s a meat processing plant. Nah, I don’t really want to work there. There’s a college, there’s a city, ah! There’s a really large healthcare clinic system, that has clinics all over an area. Maybe I want to work there. Oh, sure. They have an occupational medicine department. What does occupational medicine do? They help employers.” 

And I had that community health background, and I thought, “Well, maybe they need help growing their business in occupational medicine. Maybe they need help having someone explain to employers why hearing tests were important, or how audiometric screening works, or when somebody needs a respirator, what sort of medical evaluations do they need?” So I pulled myself together, updated my resume, and contacted the head of the occupational medicine department. Had a meeting with her, and she pulled in the administrator of the clinic, and I made a job pitch to them. I said, “I think you should hire me, and I think this is what I can do to help you grow your department.” They said, “Cool. We think so too. You’re hired.” I’m like, “Whoa, awesome.”

So I got to that job first day, and the HR director came to me, “Welcome to the company. Here, you’re going to be working in occupational medicine. Hey, by the way, we’ve been at this for a long time, the clinic’s been together 60 years or something. Never had anybody do employee safety here, ever, for our thousand employees. So can you do that? It’s part of your job. We wrote it in the job description.” I’m like, “Oh. Okay. That’s not what I signed up for, but that’s the job that I got.” I had dual track, in that particular job, with employee safety and healthy, and reaching out to the community.

As you suspect it might end up, I ended up doing a lot more employee safety and health, than I ever did necessarily, with employers and occupational medicine.

Barrett: Wow, okay. One question I had, just kind of rewinding here for a second, and I don’t know this. Is it fairly common for state or federal OSHA employees to enter the private sector at some point in their career?

Jill: I think it’s more common now than it used to be. The people that started … The OSHA Act was adopted in 1970, and in the state where I was working in, Minnesota, it was adopted in 1973, it became a state agency. My early mentors, Dale, Richard, and Bob, all started in 1973. That’s where their careers ended, as well. Decades before, people really sought those government jobs, and they kept them. Now, the new iterations of investigators, based on my contacts I still have there, people use it as a touchpoint, a place to launch their career, put in a couple of years, because it gives you such interesting context in the workforce. Because you get to see so many different places of employment, it really gives you a broad skillset. 

In the time that I was with OSHA, I was the lead investigator for over 500 workplaces. Where else can you get that kind opportunity for a career? People use it now as a stepping stone, I think, more than a career path. That’s a generational thing too.

Barrett: You end up in the private sector, ultimately, and you’re working for a healthcare organization, where safety is kind of a thing. But that’s not necessarily the job you were wrangling for. You weren’t trying to be their occupational safety professional for their workforce.

Barrett: And got stuck with the responsibility, reluctantly.

Barrett: Yeah. What was the pushback like for you? You’d pitched one thing, you earned this opportunity, here you are, you’re excited about it, and wanting to transition into more a business intelligence/business development role. What was it like for you to be asked to do that in the organization? What was your expectation when you reluctantly agreed to take that on?

Jill: It was such a hard learning curve for me. I was absolutely not set up for that. Think about the fact that I came from my one and only career, where I had a badge, and a literal stick. I could compel people to do things with the law.

Barrett: An actual safety cop.

Jill: Yeah, an actual safety cop. Whenever I would leave an inspection, I thought, “Man, I feel sorry for those people I just left. That safety professional that’s got to do all that stuff I just told them they had to do, ’cause I wouldn’t want to have to do that.” And there I was, in private sector, having to do all that stuff.

I approached that job, and I remember finding the first thing that I really wanted to address, which was a fall protection issue on the roof of the clinic. I thought, “Well, this is bad. I’ve got maintenance employees up on this roof, they’re working near the edge, they could fall, they don’t have any fall protection plan, this is a bad thing. So I wrote up this giant email to the administrator of the clinic, and I laid out my case just as I would have for OSHA. The cases that the Attorney General loved of mine, because they were so detailed. And I sent it his way and said, “This is wrong, here’s why. Here’s a way to fix it. Here I what we need to do. Here is how much it is going to cost.” And I got huge pushback hard. A hard no. An absolute no. 

The response was, “Too many words. One to two sentence max. Maybe a couple of bullet point and, by the way, this situation? Is anybody else in our space even dealing with something like this? I don’t think so. So go away.” I was like, “Oh no. Like big, big fail.” That was my introduction to real live business practices, where safety and health professionals really have to be skilled salespeople as well, in explaining and triaging their needs, and how they approach things. 

While I didn’t end up liking that administrator very much, he really taught me a number of business skills very, very quickly. Or, at least, I caught onto them, and thought, “I need to completely change my approach.”

Barrett: This isn’t a guy with two Doberman’s in a small town. This is a guy in a suit, in an industry where safety concerns have been I’d say, on the rise, in terms of prominence nationally, in terms of labor groups, et cetera. What was the lay of the land there? Just to characterize it. If you had to create them, looking back, when you started doing occupational health and safety for them, seeing as how no one was doing it, what did you wade into? How thick was the swamp?

Jill: It was very thick. I would give them maybe a solid D, in the list of things the employers have to do by way of compliance, just the basic stuff, they were maybe doing two things that were required, out of dozens. That was because there were a couple of other people who had skills in those two areas. So they were approaching, and dealing, with those. 

I was able to have some successes in that job, but not others. When it got to the not others, that was the part that compelled me to move on to my next opportunity. One of the successes was I was able to institute a mercury abatement program. If you remember, mercury containing thermometers, and sphygmomanometers, those things that take people’s blood pressure, that had the little silver mercury hanging on the wall. That was old school way to take a persons blood pressure. We had a couple of those spill. Cleaning up a mercury skill is catastrophic, because it’s an element, you can’t make it go away. It’s there always. You can clean it up, but you have to clean it up through real extreme means, and have to have professionals to be able to do that, so that people aren’t breathing in mercury vapors in their work.

After the first spill, and I orchestrated the clean-up of it with the professionals, and got it done right, it was a pretty big price tag. Then there was the second one and they were, “Wait a minute. All these thousands of dollars again?” That’s when I put the business hat on, I’m like well, I worked with someone else in our purchasing department. I said, “How much would it cost to replace all these with non-mercury containing versus how much we just spent on two clean-ups?” Got the math together, presented the mathematical facts, and pretty soon I was leading the charge of a full-on mercury abatement program, and getting rid of all the mercury possible in 12 buildings. And was successful in that. That was a fun and fulfilling project as well. There were some successes, but it also included doing some math.

Barrett: Good lessons to learn. Sound like, as it always does, it comes back to culture. Once you got a peek behind the curtain there, and maybe a true sense of how that organization valued safety, the actual safety and health of their employees. Time to move on.

Jill: It was time to move on. Without giving the details of what caused that to happen, when I heard a sentence come out of the leader’s mouth that was, “We’re not going to address that, because I would rather beg forgiveness later.” Though, what I was putting out, was very grave concerns about exposures employees were having. I knew that it was time for me to stop collecting a paycheck at that particular place.

Barrett: So, time did well. The silver lining is, it’s time to start over, right?

Barrett: Let’s go find something new that is fulfilling.

Barrett: Tell me about shifting gears there in your next opportunity.

Jill: Again, I’m in the same community, I’m looking out the landscape of the community thinking, “Okay, where can I go next?” I guess I was never a person that looked for through want ads or whatever, and this was … I don’t even know if LinkedIn was a thing at that point yet. Maybe have just been getting started. I thought, well, there’s a community college in the city I was living in. I knew that they had a program called, Customized Training. Customized Training was a piece of the college that reached out into the community to provide education on lots, and lots of topics, that were driven by employer need. Whether it was soft skills training, or welding skills, whatever it was in a community, the customized training department would provide that.

I knew of the person who was the Dean of the department at the time, a woman that I respected in the community. I went to her and I said, “Cathy, do you have anybody that’s doing safety education for employers in the community?” She said, “No. But we need it. I’ve been looking for someone. The other colleges in the state have people who are doing safety training, and we’ve got somebody who’s been trying to do it, but no one who has your background or skillset. I think we should do this.” I’m like, “Great, this gets me back into education again, because I really liked that whole education piece, which has seemed to have been a theme in my career, I guess.”

So I got that job. She talked to the president of the college, and they created this position for me, to do customized safety training, which I thought was going to be the best job ever. I got there, and immediately, within the first week, I knew that it was a bad choice. It was a bad choice because, primarily, it was a sales job. Not only did I have to write my own curriculum and deliver it, but I had to sell it, pitch myself, price it, and do all of those things that I didn’t have a skillset for, and I really didn’t have an interest in. 

While I loved doing the training, the pressure to make the sale and hit my number? I’m not wired for that. Those are special people that do sales jobs, and I’m not that special. I don’t have those gifts. I knew right away, “Oh, this is not good.” I was there about, just under two years. My Dean, Cathy, who I love, came to me one day, and she was always pitching me to an employer. She was out, doing all kinds of business meetings, and she came back to the office one day, and she said, “Jill, I met this guy at this company It’s a biotech and life safety company in a poultry industry. I was telling him, you know, you should contract with us. I have Jill and she could help you out with so many things. And he said to me, “Why wouldn’t I just hire her myself? Why would I contract through you?” So she came back to the office and she said, “I think you’re gonna get stolen away from me.”

Two weeks later I got an email from Jonathan, my next boss, with a job description, and said, “Do you know anybody who might be interested in a job like this?” Which is how I got my next job.

Barrett: So, you hung on for two years though?

Jill: I did, right? Yeah, just shy of it. I was looking the whole time, but I was kind of running out of options in my community. 

Barrett: What was your biggest lesson, biggest takeaway from that whole experience?

Jill: That I just don’t like sales. I don’t know that I have … I just want to help people. I know that you can help people through sales, but I don’t know that I had the skillset to, the tenacity. Maybe I lack the tenacity to keep going after it, day, after day, after day, after day, after day. It’s not my strength. 

Barrett: What are you thinking at this point in time? Again, it’s not the right fit. Where are you wanting to go, at this point in your career?

Jill: Yeah, you know I wasn’t thinking about where I wanted to go, other than out, when Jonathan sent me that job description. It was sort of like manna. I read it, and I thought, “This sounds pretty good, this sounds interesting. It’s a really large organization. They had multiple types of business lines, in multiples states. This sounds pretty interesting to me.” And I like him, the person who would become my next boss. It wasn’t really so much of where I wanted to go, as more it was this job sort of dropped out of the sky for me. 

I took it, and it turned out to be really good career choice. And I really built a lot of skills that I hadn’t had before, that I was able to develop. When I took that position, it was kind of funny. They, too, like the clinic had never had a safety person, in a 65 year history of the company, so it was starting out square one. They didn’t have anything for me to jump into, or start with. It was me starting everything. 

Additionally he said, “I also need you to manage all the Workers’ Compensation cases. We don’t have anyone who can do that job.” I had never managed Workers’ Compensation in my life. I don’t even think it was touched on in my graduate program. I knew nothing. He said, “This is your job too.” I really needed to get myself training quickly. How do you even approach it? It turns out, I was supporting five different insurance lines over five different states. So I made very quick friends with one of our Workers’ Compensation companies, and I asked them if I could take training from them. They happened to provide training. I took a couple of sessions, and seminars, with them, and I was constantly on the phone validating. “I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna make this decision. I’m thinking about handling it this way. What do I need to know about this?” They really held my hand for a while, until I got going.

It ended up being an absolutely wonderful thing. I love doing Worker’s Compensation case management. It was helping employees. It was helping my employer. And I was able to whittle their costs down, very quickly, by taking care of people, in a way they hadn’t before. But that company was so scared to hire an OSHA person. They were one of those employers who really didn’t like a lot of government around them. 

So they had this board meeting before they extended the offer to me, Jonathan told me afterward, and they were all debating, “Should we hire her? Shouldn’t we hire her? Should we hire her? She’s a former OSHA person. What if she’s the safety cop? How are we gonna handle that? Is she gonna be able to operate in the gray area? How is this gonna go? I she gonna be bossy?” You know, all of that kind of stuff. Jonathan reassured them that I would be see shades of business gray, and they decided to take a leap. And I’m glad they did. 

Barrett: So, building a program completely from the ground up, is some experience. You were there how many years?

Jill: A little over three.

Barrett: A little over three years. When you left, did you feel like you had that thing dialed in?

Barrett: Is it ever finished?

Jill: I think every safety and health professional will tell you, we’re never done. There’s always more to do. When I left, I would say that even some of the basic elements were still missing. A lot of that was, again, I was a sole operator, 1500 employees, 11 different companies, 5 states, and managing over a million dollars of Workers’ Compensation cases a year. And, all of the insurance companies that went with that, which ended up being the biggest part of my job. The safety things were happening for me in fits and bursts. 

I was able to get safety training nailed down, and have that taken care of, which was my highest priority. I was able to do auditing of almost all of our facilities, and sometimes a few times, which was great. Because I was really worried about the physical hazards people were exposed to. I was able to make a lot of inroads, where I was training other people in safety, so they could see through my eyes, you know, hazards, and correct them in the workplace. When I left I was working on a project, on getting all the safety programs and policies and procedures together. So I didn’t get it done.

Barrett: Where did you start, right? I mean, you’re starting from zero. It’s scratch. What do you do, right? How do you determine the priorities? I imagine it’s probably based on, since we’re talking about occupational health and safety, what are the top hazards now? What are the most dangerous scenarios for workers? How do I put those fires our?

Jill: Right. What I did was I started with Workers’ Compensation data. When I got my arms around that, and into it, because I was looking at the sheer number of injuries that were occurring, and the amount of money they were spending on them. I got with a business analyst and, since we had so many different insurance lines, we really needed to be able to find a way to compare apples, and oranges, and pears, and bananas. ‘Cause that’s really how it presented itself, financially. I needed a business analyst to help me with that, along with the insurance companies.

Through a lot of work, I was able to get a pretty quick picture on what was driving the injuries in each of the company business units. Whether it was eye injuries, or back injuries, or whatever it was, so I could figure out how to triage and start working my safety engineering skills on trying to mitigate some of those hazards, that were causing those injuries, and hurting people. That’s what I used for my baseline. Then, with the dollars and the numbers broken down by injury types, I was able to use that data to compel the leadership, for all of those different businesses, to make decisions. When I say make decisions, I sold them on the idea that they needed to do safety training. If they did investments in these areas, which were causing X, Y, and Z injuries, at this sort of rate and frequency, at this sort of cost to them, we would be able to see that take a downturn. 

Trust me, let’s go along on this ride. Here’s the facts. If we put this interrupter, and the interrupter being training, in place, I think you’re going to be getting some benefit. And they went with it. When I started with that organization they were spending, on average, I did a five-year look back for their leadership. They were spending anywhere from $1.2 to $1.4 million dollars a year on work comp. After we started doing training, and when I was managing the cases closely, and when I say managing them closely, I was getting people to report injuries early and often, before they became catastrophic. 

The next year, the total was $850,000.00. When I went back to the management team, with that dollar amount, they were like, “Okay. So that training investment worked.” They’re like, “Oh good. That’s cool. Well done Jill. What are you gonna do for us next year?” There was a very short pause of celebration, followed by, “How much further do you think you can drop it next year?”

I move on next to Vivid Learning Systems, which is, of course, where I am today. I was at that job that I was really loving, and a few crazy management changes took place, and some things that I could no longer support were happening as well, along with a bunch of other colleagues of mine. I knew that it was time for me to move on.

I took a weekend, and I made a list of things that I really loved about the field of safety, and things I didn’t love. And industries that I loved, and industries I didn’t really love. Where did I really see myself going in this career, that I had now been at for quite a while? So I made my pros and cons list, and what I liked and what I didn’t like, I decided on a couple of industries that I’d be interested in. 

Brushed up my resume one weekend, and went off to a safety conference, that was already scheduled. I ended up meeting with he sales manager, with Vivid Learning Systems, who I had met 10 years before that at a trade show on safety. He had lured me into the online safety training booth for Vivid Learning Systems, and he said, “You should really come to my breakout session.” This was now some 13, 14 years ago. He said, “Come to my breakout session and talk about online safety training.” I said, “Okay, sure. That sounds like the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m gonna sit in your audience, and I’m gonna poke holes at how ridiculous this is. I’m a trainer, I stand in front of people, I do the teaching, how can you do it on a computer? This sounds lame, and boring. Yeah. I’ll come to your breakout session.”

So I went to his breakout session and he completely converted me. I was able to see, in this training program, wow. I imagine the Code of Federal Regulations open in my hand, and I was seeing how they actually sketched this stuff out. And it was meeting regulatory compliance, plus it wasn’t boring. I thought, “Wow, if I’m ever in need of safety training, I might actually have to call this company.” I put all my notes from them in a file, tucked it away, and meanwhile I had been at that job at the clinic, where I didn’t have a chance to pitch that kind of thing. I’d been at the job at the college where that wasn’t something they were into. I got to my job with the life science and biotech poultry company, and I absolutely needed training. And I couldn’t be the one to deliver it all, because I was in way over my head.

I took that file out, that was now dusty from being years old, and I called James, my now co-worker, and I said, “Hey. I think I need to hear a sales pitch from you, because I think I need your product.” That’s the product that I pitched to those management people. 

Fast forward, I’m now looking for my next opportunity, and I had kind of decided what field I maybe wanted to go into, and I’m attending my conference, and I already have my my annual lunch date set up with my now friend James, who I saw at the conference every year. He said, “Hey. How’s it going? What’s happening in your life? Let’s catch up.” 

We’re having lunch together and I said, “You know, I need to tell you I’m gonna start looking for another job. I kind of have some ideas on maybe where I want to focus. But I want you to know, I’ll do what I can so you don’t lose the contract with this company I was at at the time.” He said, “Well, where are you thinking of going?” And I said, “I kind if whittled my ideas down to these particular fields.” He said, “Well, what about working for us?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “What about coming to work for Vivid?” I said, “What would that look like?” He said, “I don’t know, but I think it might be a good idea. Let’s talk to the CEO.” So that’s how that came to be, with an individual I had met so many years before, and just kept in contact with. So that’s where I am today. It’s been a good almost, gosh, coming up on almost four years now. 

But since we’ve been talking about education this entire time, and I really hadn’t considered that what I’ve been doing in my career the last 23 year, it’s that. So is it chief safety officer? Is it chief educator? Maybe it’s educator, right, so where does that education go? It goes to instructing our sales team to understand the work of safety professionals, so that they’re able to meet them where they are, and talk to them about their work in a meaningful way. And, with our customer service people, and anyone who touches our customers through our company. 

But then there’s more. That’s with the employers that are our clients, that I get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. So I get the opportunity to talk with safety and health professionals across the country, every day, who are trying to solve their latest problem. Many of them have been at it a long time, like I have, and just need somebody to run something by and say, “what would you do?” Or, “Here is what I was thinking.” Or some of them are brand new in the profession, are just getting started, just like I did so many years ago, and they really don’t know where to start, and need some guidance. Or maybe they just got the job, and they’re the HR director, and they’re like, “Gosh, I have no idea what safety even is. It was on some test I took one time, but I don’t know what it all is.”

So, I get to do education from all different kinds of levels, and all different kinds of vantage points. I really, really love that about my work.

Jill: Well this seems like a natural ending point for us today, and I’m so looking forward to all of you joining me next time. We’ll be able to hear other people’s stories, of how they became an accidental safety professional.

For the accidental safety pro, this is Jill James. Thank you for listening


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